Monday, August 6, 2007

That Bridge, When We Come to it

When I was in my junior year of college, I lived in a house on the corner of University Avenue and 10th Avenue in southeast Minneapolis. Until August 1 2007, that location meant nothing more than a lack of parking and some freeway noise. Now, it’s kitty-corner from a national disaster. Yellow police tape, satellite trucks, law enforcement officers, and onlookers teem about the area.

I work at the University of Minnesota, and today, I decided to take a walk. I caught the 16 bus downtown and walked over to the river. A granite and limestone bridge built in 1883 spans 2,100 feet across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis to St. Anthony. The Stone Arch Bridge was rehabilitated and re-opened in 1994 for pedestrian and bike traffic, and it’s the nearest accessible bridge from which the public can view the bridge that collapsed on August 1st. It’s only the second time I have been on this bridge, the first being only a month ago. But that was just a walk.

I was half hoping a reporter would stop me and ask why I came down because I actually have an answer: a news event of national importance happened here less than a week ago, and I wanted to see what I could see with my own eyes. Like many people, I have been following this relatively closely. I watched TV from the moment we turned it on Wednesday evening expecting the frivolous spectacle of “So You Think You Can Dance” and instead saw a spectacle of another sort unfolding three miles away.

At first I thought it was another country, and then another city, and then I realized that it was local television, so I thought it was the suburbs. We have a lot of water and a lot of bridges in the Twin Cities, but it never occurred to me that a bridge of that size, right in the middle of Minneapolis, would be laying in the Mississippi River on a Wednesday evening. I called my parents, who were visiting family in Denver, as a preemptive measure, and Pete did the same for his family, who live in Massachusetts. Texts and phone calls crisscrossed the Metro as people located each other. Aside from a friend who had crossed the bridge twice that day delivering beer, no one I knew had even been on it recently.

My boss sent me a text telling me not to come in to work Thursday morning unless he called me. I guess he did not want me to have to deal with the possible mess that campus could be, I-35W being a close-by major thoroughfare. I sat at home and watched the coverage. The contrast between the national and local news was interesting, and I had a brief flash of what it must have felt like for New Yorkers in the days after September 11th, 2001. This is a fragment of the magnitude of that event, and its implications are much different, but the media attention and the ensuing inaccuracies have to be similar. Little things bugged me, like people saying that it was a bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, or using sound bytes from the NTSB chief to misinterpret the facts as he actually stated them. When WCCO TV signed off on Wednesday night after an evening of what I thought was respectful, informative, and responsible reporting, Don Shelby said that CNN was claiming that the bridge collapsed due to concrete failing on posts in the river. He added, shaking his head, that he saw no way that anyone could possibly know that, and that the people reporting it had probably never been to Minneapolis, let alone crossed that bridge.

It’s a scrutiny that we are not used to here, and it’s interesting. People are calling Pete and I, wondering how we are “holding up,” believing that our spirits need lifting during this time of tragedy. And you know what? We’re fine. It may sound callous to say, but we are. I am only upset when they show pictures of those who died and talk to their family members, but that would be true for any tragedy, anywhere in the world. This is a tragedy of infrastructure, a shock to the American sense of public safety, a wake up call, and an absolute devastation to those who lost loved ones when that bridge fell. It’s no comfort to tell them that it could have been much worse than it was, but it’s true. It’s astounding that more people were not killed.

From the Stone Arch Bridge, you can’t see a lot: you can see the slumped south side and part of the north side; you can glimpse the deck that is in the river. Without binoculars, you can’t see much else. I did not bring binoculars as this walk was an impulse at 1:00 in the afternoon, and I probably would not have brought binoculars anyway, though many people did. And there are a lot of people down there—all ages and walks of life trying to get a glimpse. On the north side, you can get relatively close to the deck that crashed down onto land, the part that crushed the train cars and came down over the River Road. Once you get up onto University Avenue, you can see across the river and the deck that is almost at a 45 degree angle. Cars still sit all over, perched at various spots all over the structure. On the chain link fence on University Avenue crossing I-35, someone has pinned a sheet, spray painted with the phrase “Stop Gawking-Go Home and Watch it on TV,” which is, I think, supposed to make us feel shame. It did not work. If anything, I smiled to myself and thought “Hypocritical.” And then I thought “That seems like the opposite of what people normally tell you to do.” As long as people are being respectful of the scene and are not getting in the way of those who are there to recover and clean up, people probably should see for themselves.

As I approached my old house, I noticed two other signs hanging from a fence and an apartment building. One read “Rebuild America (Not Iraq)” and the other “Bridges Not Bombs.” These were, I thought, better use of both words and sheets.

In my estimation, Minneapolis police and fire fighters and other “First Responders” did a remarkable job, and the citizens who were present on the scene and on the bridge were heroic in their efforts to help each other. Our political leaders can talk all they want about a “Minnesota Spirit,” but I don’t think that’s it. Nor do I think it’s an “American Spirit.” I would like to believe it’s a human response; that faced with such an event, there is something in the species that reacts with a moral impulse to help those in need. What else can we take from such a thing? We can get into the political and practical issues later, as we no doubt will, but right now, a bunch of strangers lent aid to each other, and a little of that can go a long way in times such as these.