Minneapolis marks 5 years since bridge collapse

An aerial view shows the collapsed I-35W bridge 04 August 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


(CBS/AP) MINNEAPOLIS - It was five years ago that the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, killing 13 people.

There are several observances Wednesday to commemorate the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse. Three local arts organizations created a musical composition, a short play and five poems to be debuted during a late afternoon program at Mill City Museum near the bridge site. The event coincides with the time of the rush hour collapse, which happened at 6:05 p.m.

That will be followed by a photo exhibition in the museum's lobby. Artist Vance Gellert spent the last two years interviewing and photographing survivors, first responders and others affected by the collapse. In all, 145 people were injured in the collapse.

Gov. Mark Dayton has ordered Minnesota flags be flown at half-staff today to mark the anniversary.

One of the survivors from the tragedy is Garrett Ebling, whose car plunged 100 feet into the river on that day. His reminders from the incident are the scar on his arm or changes to his face, as reported by CBS affiliate WCCO Minneapolis. "You look in the mirror and you look a little different than you did before," he said. "Those are constant reminders. Early on, they were negative reminders. Now, I'm able to move forward with them and be content with that."

Ebling told WCCO he experienced PTSD-like symptoms, depression and irriatability but found relief in writing and is now published a memoir, Collapsed: A Survivor's Climb from the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge. "I'm OK that my life has gone in this direction and understand the blessings that come with that," he said.

To remember the collapse, state historians preserved items they thought would vividly convey the chaotic scene that unfolded back in 2007: a battered Interstate 35W sign, an emergency worker's shirt, the back door of a school bus that young survivors used to escape.

Five years later, most items collected from the rush-hour disaster that killed 13 people and injured scores of others remain tucked away from public view, held back partly by concern that emotions may still be too raw for a museum display.

"I don't think it would be inconceivable that we would do an exhibition on the event," said Adam Scher, a collections department curator for the Minnesota Historical Society. "I think perhaps more time does have to lapse before that would be appropriate."

One day, the collection might even feature mangled pieces of the bridge itself. In a garage half the size of a football field, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has kept steel beams — some crumpled as though they were aluminum cans — and the sheered connector plates that first gave way. The fragments offer a frozen-in-time reminder of the devastating forces that sent the span tumbling into the Mississippi River below.

At the time of the tragedy, historians knew that documenting the disaster would be a sensitive but essential task. They set out to collect items that could tell the story of Bridge No. 9340, its victims and those who rushed to the scene to help.

They came away with the highway sign with the 35W logo, the Red Cross worker's shirt and the door of the school bus that had come to rest precariously on a fallen slab of concrete. Later they added a commemorative pin from the first anniversary and an ID badge from a worker on a replacement bridge.

For now, the collection can be viewed by appointment only, although there are plans to include a couple of the artifacts in a broader exhibit on Minnesota's past beginning in November.

The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the collapse to a 1960s design flaw in plates used to connect bridge beams. The plates were half the thickness they should have been. Investigators also concluded that the weight of construction materials was a contributing factor.

State historians, and everyone else, have been constrained by litigation. The hulking bridge components were deemed evidence in various investigations and lawsuits. While the victims have settled their complaints, legal disputes involving the state and a bridge design firm remain unresolved.