Nightly routine turns into horror
MINNEAPOLIS – Four minutes after the 35W bridge collapsed, police Sgt. Ed Nelson and other first responders rushed into the dust-filled scene of twisted metal, crushed cars and chunks of concrete turned up like gravestones.The 55-year-old jumped over debris and crawled across a foot-wide twisted beam to get to some dazed survivors on a piece of interstate dumped into the Mississippi River. He and two other officers helped them onto rescue boats.”I just explained to them that they had fallen. they seemed somewhat amazed by that,” Nelson said Thursday. “We made sure everybody was off that span and we got on the last boat.”Nelson wouldn’t speak of the dead. Police Chief Tim Dolan did.First responders Wednesday had to do more than rescue the living and recover the dead, he said: At times the only thing they could do for people trapped under wreckage was to listen.”There are some unbelievable testimonials and stories involving a number of those people. People who were pinned or partly crushed told emergency workers to say ‘hello’ or say ‘goodbye’ to their loved ones,” Dolan said.The scene Dr. John Hick found when he reached the south side of the bridge was hellish, but the emergency room physician didn’t see the worst of it until he reached the north side 30 minutes later, after helping to set up a triage point.The 64-foot-high span is not as high above the riverbank on the south side, so those injuries were less serious. On the other bank, there was little he could do.”If you drop 60 feet, that’s about the same thing as hitting a brick wall,” said Hick, assistant medical director for emergency medical services at the Hennepin County Medical Center. “At the time that I got to the north side, the only people who were still in their vehicles were the people who had died.”There was a different feeling of helplessness at the site of the collapse Thursday, well after the emergency crews switched from a rescue operation to one of recovering the dead.Submerged cars sat in the Mississippi, guaranteeing the death toll will rise above the official figure of four. The danger of unpredictable currents kept dive crews from reaching them.But amid all the death were untold scores of people amazed to have survived the fall.”The first vehicle we came up on was completely submerged and crushed,” Nelson said. “I asked a gentleman if he saw anybody get out of that vehicle. He looked at me and said, ‘That was me.”‘Melissa Hughes, a warehouse manager, remembers the view from the bridge tumbling around her.”All of a sudden, things were up in the air. Things weren’t on the ground anymore,” she said. “I swear I saw a construction worker in mid-air. Then I had that free-falling feeling.”As suddenly as it plunged, her car had stopped. Then she heard a huge crash as her back window exploded. Later, looking over the scene, she realized the noise had come from a black pickup truck that had flipped and fallen on top of her car.”I heard people yelling. There was one person standing outside the vehicle just screaming in pain, grabbing his back and just falling to his knees.”Jay Reeves, driving home from his office at the American Red Cross, saw the bridge collapse while on a parkway that passes under it. As he pulled onto the shoulder and opened his car door, the first thing he heard was children’s voices, screaming from inside a bus, its back-end poking toward the sky.”Screaming kids are good,” Reeves said. “That means they’re alive and full of a lot of energy. As a paramedic, that’s the best thing, I’ll tell you. If it’s quiet, that means I’ve got a busload of children who can’t help themselves.””My only priority was to get those people off the bridge,” he said. The bridge was groaning, and he was afraid it would collapse further.People climbed up on the deck and helped the kids out of the bus. “Someone handed a kid down to me,” Reeves said.Aron Dahlgren, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota graduate student, lay trapped inside his 2000 GMC Sierra, the vehicle pointed nose down, up against another car.He felt something cold and wet. It felt like blood. Was he alive?Then his truck rolled forward. He realized the cool liquid was the iced tea he’d been carrying. He shook off the stupor and climbed toward safety.”A lot of it’s a blur,” he said. “I just pulled myself out. I don’t know if I opened the door. I pulled myself through probably through the window. I remember my feet getting tangled in the seat belt.”He had cuts on his palms and knees from pulling himself out. He didn’t need stitches, but doctors at the emergency room removed small pieces of glass from one of his fingers.”The first thing I heard was a person in the car adjacent to me screaming. Other than that, it was quiet. The person was screaming. He said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m getting out of here.’ He looked hurt, but he was moving. We were all kind of together and just took off. It was very quiet, and very eerie. I guess the sirens started 20 seconds or so after that. And then all hell broke loose. Before that, it was just quiet.””The image that’s stuck in my head is of the bridge collapsing,” Dahlgren said. “The signs just coming down. You could feel a rumble, and the next thing you know you’re free-falling. It happened so fast you don’t even think about it.”It was fast, but that was long enough for the thought to cross his mind: A few seconds either way, and he would not be alive.—EDITOR’S NOTE – AP writers Adam Geller, Patrick Condon, Joshua Freed, Gregg Aamot and Mark Carlson in Minneapolis, Matt Crenson and Deborah Hastings in New York and Justin Pope in Boston contributed to this report.