School Bus Survivors Recall the I-35W Bridge Collapse

August 01, 2017 07:21 PM

Moments after the Interstate 35W bridge fell into the Mississippi River, 10-year-old Kaleigh Swift called her mom.

Stuck on the school bus and unable to reach her, she left a voicemail.

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"The bridge broke as we were crossing it," Swift screamed into the phone.

The mother and daughter shared the message with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reporter Jessica Miles 10 years ago. 

35W Bridge: 10 Years Later

"Are you there momma? Momma, are you there?" Swift cried out in fear.

Many parents of children on the bus were at the Waite House in south Minneapolis, waiting to pick them up from a field trip.

"I remember just freezing up, fear definitely hit me in that moment," said Ryan Watkins, who was 13 years old when he was on the bus. 

"I had been sitting in the aisle, so I was turned around and able to look out the back of the bus, and I could see out the back window as things were happening, and it almost seemed like, as you looked out the back, instead of seeing straight you could literally only see road," Watkins said.

Watkins recalled the fall, with children edged between a smoking semi truck on one side and the edge of the bridge on the other.

"All this cloud of debris was coming in through the windows, so I closed my eyes, and I remember in the shock of the moment not being able to see or not being able to hear," Watkins said. "It was almost like two senses just gone." 

"I fell, I fell over the seat into the stairwell of the bus," said Julie Graves, who was a youth manager at the Waite House.

Sitting in the front of the bus, she was thrown forward.

"I remember being on my hands (and knees) and kicking myself out of the stairwell," Graves said.

Graves was in charge of the 50 kids on that bus.

"I went to step down, and I didn't realize I had shattered my ankle and my toes, and my back was broken, so I went to step and I couldn't step. I couldn't hold myself up," she said.

With help, Graves made it off the bus. She said the chaos of the collapse may never leave her.

"I definitely have some PTSD issues that are lingering," Graves said. "I am claustrophobic now, and I wasn't 10 years ago. I don't like being in small spaces." 

Graves is still at the Waite House, still helping kids, and still talking with many who were on that bus. 

As a mother now, she has a new perspective on the tragedy.

"I can't imagine what that felt like for the parents," Graves said. "I mean, we grieved together, we healed together, we processed together afterwards. But now I really understand, as a parent, what something like that must have felt like." 

For Ryan Watkins, who is now 23, seeing Graves and his other youth leaders in action that day ushered him into a life of service and helping others.

"I was always touched, and it really inspired me the way the leaders all stepped up," Watkins said.

Convinced a higher power played a role in his safety, Watkins has found his mission in life. 

"For me, it's all about God," Watkins said. "He's put us on this earth for something, whether somebody has had a bridge collapse experience or they are just awake the next day, that's a day given that we can use to make a difference. And I'm here to do it." 

Some of the other students on that school bus, now young adults, say the horrific experience was actually worse for their parents, who didn't know where their children were, how to get to them or how to help them heal after the collapse.

Credits

Jessica Miles

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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