Friday, August 03, 2007
This one hits close to home
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota -- Two nights ago, I was sitting at my desk, making a to-do list for the next day, when I heard someone say, "Oh my god, look at this bridge collapse on TV." As I turned my head to see what was happening, I heard a voice in the distance say, "Alyssa, isn't this where you're from?" I stared at the TV while my brain clumsily attempted to compute what I was seeing, but all I could fixate on was the word "Minneapolis" in the banner. That was all I needed for my heart to start pounding.

Even though I grew up in Minneapolis, leaving just two years ago for this job, my brain started to freeze and I couldn't figure out which bridge had collapsed. All of a sudden, the tangled web of highways racing through my head unwound, and my heart dropped. My mom had recently moved to a condo on the river downtown, blocks away from the bridge. I frantically started dialing her cell number and it was busy. I hung up and dialed my dad, my step-mom, my sister, friends, cells, landlines ... all busy signals. I have never heard a worse noise in my life.

Moments later, my dad got through to me and let me know that he and the rest of my family were OK. What he said next would become a theme I'd hear from friends and family again and again: "I would have been on that bridge at 6 p.m. tonight if I hadn't decided to pick a file up from the office in the morning instead of swinging by on the way home."

Less than 24 hours after this conversation, I was standing on the roof of the Minneapolis Holiday Inn, staring in the distance to the void that used to be a bridge. It reminded me of the pit at ground zero. I couldn't believe how vast it appeared in person.

I've never been able to truly understand a story from the aerial footage that helicopters shoot. For me, it's about a single moment or image. One of the TV guests I was speaking with said that right after the bridge collapsed she watched as a car that was clinging to the road crept over the edge and plunged in to the water. That, I get.

Helping cover a story like this when it's so close to your heart is a surreal experience. I want to show my colleagues everything and make them understand what a special city this is. I want to help them tell the story well. While gathering guests and stories for our show, I want to look people in the eye and say simply, "I get it."

Forty-eight hours ago, I was sitting in New York, fretting over the fact that I never seem to make much progress on my to-do list, and in a split second, with razor sharp focus, there was only one thing I cared about. Just one.

-- By Alyssa Caplan, "360" Associate Producer
Posted By CNN: 3:08 PM ET

Call it luck, fate, divine appointment whatever you want, your family members were spared on Wednesday. We will never really know why certain things do or do not happen to people but luckily for you everyone in your family is safe. We should all take a moment to really be thankful for all our blessing big and small because we never really know when it is going to be all gone. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Posted By Megan O. Toronto, ON, Canada : 3:35 PM ET
Alyssa, thank you for your post. I'm glad to hear your family and friends are okay. The images we've seen and the interviews we've heard are just gut-wrenching.

Minneapolis and it's people are in my thoughts and prayers.

I am so glad that AC360 has such caring professionals to cover this horrible event. You do your city proud!
Posted By Annette LaCanna, Alpha, NJ : 5:44 PM ET
Alyssa, I'm very glad to hear that your family came through this ok. I'm sure the survivors and the friends and families of all those affected by this appreciate you being there, it helps to know that someone "gets it". Take care and stay safe.
Posted By Jennifer, Washington, DC : 7:45 PM ET
Thanks for sharing your story. I was driving over the Oakland - San Francisco Bay Bridge today, and everyone was driving at least 80 - 100 mph, nobody wanted to get stuck in traffic on the bridge.

I have to admit, I was scared to death, even being used to the several disasters of this type around here. It was worse being on the bottom deck, you'd fall into the bay - at least on the top deck you'd have a chance. It's sad that in this day, we have to plan our commutes around this type of thinking.

Thank goodness your family is safe, and that something good can come out of this senseless disaster that never had to happen.
Posted By Kelly, San Francisco, CA : 8:09 PM ET
I am so glad for you that your family is safe and unhurt. I know those minutes you could not get through to them on the phone when it first happened must have seemed like an eternity.

Tragedies like this are so hard to understand for anyone but especially someone with ties to the place; it seems surreal to a lot of us. The tragedies generally do bring into extremely sharp focus just what is the most meaningful and important thing to us in our lives that we often forget in the unending minutiae of everyday life. We all just need to remember that everyday.

Thank you for sharing.
Posted By Annie Kate, Birmingham AL : 3:12 AM ET
Such a horrendous thing to happen, my sympathy to all, especially the family members who are suffering such a terrible loss. I can only hope that the "powers that be" will investigate this incident...and honestly report on the situation. I cannot help but be a bit political and say, from my point of view, that if the government (Mr. Bush?) in this country spent more money in America instead of sending all of OUR MONEY out of the country...maybe...just would be alloted to make sure our infrastructure is intact. The individual states cannot, obviously, tend to these matters (or for a reason beyond me, will not allot money to our nations obsolete roadways). Once again my heart goes out to all that had to endure such a travasty.
Posted By Moe, Liverpool NY : 5:00 AM ET
I'm glad your family and friends are all OK. I'm sure this event is making everyone a little edgy crossing bridges. I had to take my 2 kids to the pediatrician this morning (yes on a Sat). We live in RI, which according to 360, has 53% of our bridges deficient. I had to cross a very similar bridge, over water, which also had heavy construction equipment on top of it. Certainly the Minnesota collapse was on my mind before I even left the house. As I crossed the bridge, I kept thinking of the Rick Sanchez piece about how to survive a car crash when the car becomes submerged. Scary stuff.
I’m not so sure about Governor Pawlenty. Shortly after the collapse he had said the bridge had received ‘a clean bill of health.’ When a bridge has reports of “structural problems dating back to 2001, that certainly doesn’t seem like a “clean bill of health” to me. He should have his fact straight before he speaks.
My thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been touched by this tragedy and I hope they find some peace soon.
Posted By Cheryl, Johnston, RI : 11:44 AM ET

Thanks for sharing.

I had a simialr experience.I was on the phone with my father Tuesday night. He's in Duluth and I'm in Phoenix. We talked about what he was doing the rest of the week. He said he had to drive to Minneapolis the next day.

It was 6:05 CST when that section of bridge fell over the Mississippi. I found out about 7:00CST and called him - he answered.

I knew he crosses that bridge when he’s in the city every week.

His trip had been postponed a day, and prior to knowing about the bridge –wasn’t too happy about it.

When I asked him if his day he had scheduled would have led him to cross that bridge- he answered: “I would have crossed that bridge at least three times today.”

I have been away from MN for nearly 10 years now. Whenever people ask me where I'm from I always say "I live in AZ, I'm from MN."

Minnesota is my home and always will be.

Again, thanks for sharing.
Posted By amber phoenix az : 11:49 AM ET
Alyssa, I'm happy to hear that your family is ok. Four members of my family passed over that bridge that day, including a sister-in-law who passed over it just moments before the collapse. My brother had a co-worker who was on the bridge. His truck skidded down but he is relatively unhurt.
When something like this happens, I think it is easy to lose sight of what didn't happen - over 100,000 people who used that bridge weren't killed or injured that day. It's a terrible thing for the families who are waiting to hear about a loved one, but we have to keep sight of the fact that several factors came together in a "Perfect Storm" to minimize loss of life.
For starters, the bridge was under construction and lanes had been closed so it was carrying less traffic than normal.
Secondly, the rush-hour traffic that was on the bridge was moving slowly (estimated 10 mph). A car falling at that slow speed (versus careening over a guardrail at 60 mph) is a survivable accident. As we have seen, many people did survive.
Thirdly, the collapse happened in summer, during a drought period, with warm river water temperatures, low water levels, and weak river currents. Contrast this to a January accident with cars breaking through the ice and trapping the drivers under the surface in 40 degree water.
Fourthly, Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and virtually everyone knows how to swim (not true of other areas of the country). Because of the many rivers in the Metro area (Mississippi River, Minnesota River, St. Croix River), many Minnesotans - myself, ex-Minnesotan, included - have some experience with river swimming, which differs as drastically from pool swimming as ocean swimming does. Being able to swim, especially in the presence of currents, saved alot of lives.
Finally, it was fortuitous that a fire station, police station, hospitals, and coast guard boats were all in close proximity to the accident.
Had this accident happened in January with 60mph traffic in a more remote section of the town, I'm sure we would have seen a hundred car pile-up with scores of vehicles below the ice and hundreds of fatalities.
We got lucky. And for that, we can be thankful.
Now, how can we learn from this experience?
First of all, the truss system used on the bridge had no redundancy, meaning that failure of one single structural member could cause bridge failure under the right conditions. Newer bridges are designed with redundancy, but many older bridges still have this problem. (Interestingly, another steel truss bridge, the Point Pleasant bridge, otherwise known as the Silver Bridge, failed in 1967. This bridge failure was featured prominently in the Richard Gere thriller "The Mothman Prophecies".)
Correcting this non-redundancy problem means a commitment to infrastructure funding by our government. Reframing this commitment as a national security issue may be the answer - consider that a would-be terrorist needs only elementary civil engineering knowledge and one explosive charge to take out a bridge of this design.
To me, it seems logical that money to fix similar bridges could come out of funding for the department of Homeland Security.
Another solution is to add more security cameras, similar to the one that captured the bridge falling. Department of Homeland Security monitoring of the underdecks of the country's key bridges should be a given. It will not save us from the structural failure that occured in Minneapolis, but it will be a guard against would-be terrorists who have just seen televised proof that taking out a bridge (and getting the power-trip they crave from the ensuing multi-day media blitz) isn't that difficult to achieve.
We got lucky. As a nation, lets be a little more proactive to ensure we stay lucky in the future.
Posted By Julie San Diego, CA : 5:12 PM ET
Tragedy always makes us feel luckier than most, even if our luck is just ordinary.

One question that continues to haunt me is this: would any of those people killed and injured by this bridge collapse have chosen to use this bridge had they been forewarned about the conditions (metal fatigue, cracks, etc..)???

I mean, every day, every DAY we all use elevators that must bear inspection stickers. And last time I checked, elevators don't fall into rivers.

Forewarned is forearmed. Personally, I think the only way to have accountability for our bridges is for them to ALL have some sort of public "inspection stickers" right there, on the bridges, telling motorists (and pedestrians too) what the last date of inspection for the bridge was, and what was found.
Posted By Lauren R., Wheeling, WV : 6:17 PM ET
Alyssa ,I am so sorry you had to experience having such a tragedy in your home town.I know it is a loss for you.Everyone surely feels a loss even here in South Carolina.My Daughter-in law is from Moose Creek and she ,my son and grandaughter went for a visit a few weeks ago and crossed the bridge several times.I am glad your family were all safe.CJ
Posted By Carol James,conwaySC : 3:54 PM ET
Hi Alyssa Caplan, I write this assuming you are the Alyssa Caplan I remember enjoying so much as your assistant kindergarten teacher at your school. I was Miss Libbey. I taught with Mrs. Mayo.

I was amazed to read your blog entry. I don't know if you'll remember me. You were a great, standout kid. It's so fun to read your heartfelt story and get a glimpse of you through your words. You're an excellent writer and clearly a compassionate person. Just as I would have guessed you'd be! I hope you're well. Continued success to you. Susan Libbey Crosby (St. Paul, MN)
Posted By Susan : 12:12 AM ET

I can relate to your story perfectly. As a native of South Louisiana who now lives in Alaska this is exactly how I felt as the images of Hurricane Katrina started rolling in. I could not establish contact with family for days. I am thankful that like my family and friends yours are safe as well.
Posted By J.N. : 12:20 PM ET
Hi Lyss,

I'm so proud of you. I know it wasn't easy coming home to this tragedy. And you handled it so well.

After leaving the Memorial Blood Center on Friday I found myself on University over 35W in complete disbelief. That really could have been anyone. How many times have I crossed the bridge to get to the gym, work, downtown, my family's homes, and your family's homes? Too many to count.

Minnesota will get through this together. Love ya.

Posted By Anna Otieno | Minneapolis, MN : 12:30 PM ET
I live in a suburb of Minneapolis and know exactly the feeling that you are talking about. I was at work when it happened and couldn't check my phone so when I finally got off, I had several messages from friends and family. My father was also on the bridge about an hour earlier, he takes the bridge almost everyday to commute to job sites. It is a very scary realization and surreal event to people who live in Minnesota and those who couldnt get ahold of loved ones. Minnesota is a great state and Minneapolis and the surrounding areas is a great area filled with very caring people who, even in the face of this horrific tragedy, risked their own lives to save those of their fellow Minnesotans. I think that says alot about us and even if you leave this state, that stays with you.
Posted By Chelsea Klein : 2:23 PM ET
Thanks Alyssa,

It really helps to know, someone covering the story can understand and feel the loss & shock. Especially when sometimes,you turn on the news and it seems to be networks just trying to see who has the best report. Even if, the report is wrong.

Mrs. Johnson
-From Minneapolis
Posted By Anonymous : 12:35 PM ET
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