MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota -- Charles Leekley was taking 48 passengers down the Mississippi River in a paddle boat Wednesday evening when the I-35W bridge collapsed in front of him.
"It was a rumble. It was a very low-pitched rumble, and then it hit the water in a crash," he said. "It displaced a considerable amount of water very quickly, and it came raining down like a waterfall of ... dust and debris."
Leekley watched helplessly as a speeding car drove into the gulf where the bridge once stood.
"He was proceeding at a speed that he was unable to stop and he went over -- went over where the bridge had collapsed and he went nose first."
What followed was neither screaming nor sirens, but silence.
"There was no noise, no crying, no nothing. It was catastrophic," Leekley said. "It took several minutes, if not maybe five or 10 minutes, before we heard the first sirens."
At the time of the collapse, Leekley's boat was in a lock roughly 400 feet from the bridge. He estimates that in another 10 minutes he would've been underneath the bridge. It's a journey his paddle boat makes almost every day.
"It takes 10 minutes to drain the lock ... so we were 10 minutes from being directly under that, and I wouldn't be here today to talk to you about it, because if I'd survived I'd probably be exhausted from rescuing my passengers."
Leekley has been a federally licensed boat captain for 17 years. For much of the past year, he's been working in New Orleans, dredging channels that were filled in when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit.
After the bridge came down, Leekley sent out a Mayday signal over VHF radio, but hearing no response, he got on the phone and dialed 911. Leekley had diving gear on his boat and figured there must be something he could do. His passengers wanted to help, too.
"I had several passengers ask me to disembark the boat," Leekley recalls. "I made a strong argument to the lockmaster and to the police officers to let us down."
But officials held Leekley and his boat back, fearing they might block the path of smaller rescue vehicles. So Leekley backed his boat out of the lock and waited on standby for another half-hour or so.
"It's frustrating to be, to have the power to help, and yet have to make a decision based on good prudence [not to help]," Leekley said. "They made the right call, and I hope I didn't make their decision anymore difficult."
Leekley said he's aware of how fortunate he and his passengers are that they weren't any closer to the bridge when it collapsed.
"It makes you very thankful for every day that you have, that at any moment that something like that could happen that you don't even think about," he said. "So you need to be thankful for all the days that you have here because a lightning bolt could strike at any time." E-mail to a friend
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