Wednesday I left my car at home to have the windshield replaced after the little bit of excitment I described on Tuesday. This meant I commuted in my wife’s car, which does not have a radio antenna. While I have used the Hwy. 35 bridge before to get in and out of downtown, my drive typically takes me through the University and I bypass the ramp leading to the span. This summer I’ve avoided this route altogether because of the construction related to the new Gopher stadium. Out of touch and out of the way, I didn’t hear about the collapse of the bridge until about 6:15 when I got home, switched cars and decided to go out to Culver’s for dinner before church. Hearing the news was an eerie recollection of getting the first reports on the morning of 9/11.
Just like then it was a brilliant, sunny day and I was driving and listening to the radio and just like then I had to scramble mentally to convert the unreal into reality. It wasn’t hard, however, to create a picture in my mind of the all-too-familiar bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on the span and the sickening sensation of having the roadway tremble and fall beneath you. Those were my first thoughts, and then I started to inventory my family and friends. I was obviously safely out of the area, and my wife and youngest weren’t even in the country. My oldest daughter would still be at work in Roseville and wouldn’t take that route home anyway, but might find unexpected disruptions, so I used my cell phone to call hers and leave a short message on what had happened and what to expect. Then I thought of my parents in Missouri and their penchant for keeping the tv on and I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a local story, so I tried but couldn’t reach my mom’s cell, and then got my brother on his. He lived here for several years and knew the bridge; I told him we were all accounted for and fine.
As I waited for my food at Culver’s I remembered that my friend Ben would be on the bus heading this way for church. He lives near the bridge but his bus route wouldn’t logically take him that direction. Still, best to make sure. I called him on his cell and started to feel some relief when he answered. I asked, “Are you on the bus?” He replied, “Yes, and it’s horrible…” as my heart started to thump.
“Why, what’s going on, where are you?” I said with what what may have sounded to him like unwarranted agitation.
“Oh…some people…can be so clueless and rude sometimes,” he began.
I quickly filled him in on what was going on and determined that he, too, was well clear of the area. Driving to church I thought of my friend Harvey who is a bridge inspector for MNDOT and mused about how busy he was going to be. Just as I pulled up to the building the radio announced that a MNDOT bridge inspection team had been working at the site when the bridge collapsed. Uh-oh. I trotted inside. Our pastor was speaking and people were already praying; our pastor’s wife met me in the back of the room. “Harvey was there, but he’s all right.” The congregation continued to pray. I ducked out a couple of times during the evening as my cell phone vibrated, people trying to get a hold of me. When I got home there was a message from my folks. They hadn’t been watching the news that evening, but my grandmother had. She had called them, they had called me.
The next day I tried to get in to work early because my job would put me in the middle of creating and distributing any communications that might need to go out to our employees or clients. Our offices are very near the bridge and many of my co-workers could have been on it as they tried to get home. Traffic was predictably slow Thursday morning, so I called in to my new employee as I made my way west to see if anything was buzzing yet. I was a little embarrassed by the relief in her voice when I got through; it hadn’t crossed my mind earlier to let her know I had gotten safely across the river the night before, and I hadn’t yet thought to give her all my contact numbers.
Once I was in the office I was again reminded of 9/11. Back then we had had a number of clients and business contacts in the WTC, and many of our own staff were flying on business that day, some of them on the East Coast. Everyone was trying to get information; spouses were calling in, asking for itineraries or to find out if we’d had any word, a constant crowd of people was gathered around the small black and white monitor in the conference room as we hoped for new information every five minutes. Thursday we’d all already seen the pictures and it was very quiet as people almost whispered their conversations between the cubicles or kept to themselves, waiting for news. Given our proximity, could we, would we, escape unscathed? I called HR and I called our communications team in the Atlanta headquarters. As yet there had still been no word of anyone from our campus being hurt or missing. We were, however, already receiving countless phone calls and emails from our clients around the country, offering their concern, support and prayers.
As the day went on it seemed more and more likely that we hadn’t lost anyone from our Division or from the Minneapolis campus, which in fact turned out to be the case. Remarkably, we had been unaffected. That is not to say that we were untouched.