35W Bridge Survivor Describes the Collapse, Life Afterwards
"I think it gets easier each year," says Erica Gwillim. "This is the first year I've actually worked on the first of August."
Five years later, survivors of the 35W Bridge collapse, like Erica, are pausing to remember and reflect.
The collapse happened at 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, during the evening commute. Thirteen people died and more than 100 others were hurt.
It's a day Minnesotans won't forget, especially those who lived through it.
"Some days I can't believe it actually happened," Erica says. "Some days it feels still like a movie."
Erica had no problem walking across the Stone Arch Bridge today. Pausing to look south, though, it's a different story. "It took me a long time to go over THAT bridge," she says, gazing at the new version of the bridge that nearly killed her.
On that fateful day she was alone, on her way to meet her cousins for dinner.
"I saw the cars in front of me bounce and all of a sudden they dropped out of sight and I saw one car tip over the edge into the water," Erica remembers. "And then pretty soon I was dropping. I felt like it just went on and on. And I just prayed. I'm like 'Lord, we're going down'."
Her Pontiac Grand Prix landed flat. A freelance photographer captured an image of Erica standing next to it, calling 911. She's endured survivor's guilt.
"I just felt like it should have been me. I should have been one who had gone."
Erica continues to heal from herniated discs and soft tissue damage she suffered in the collapse. "It feels like I've been dealing with pain for a long time," she says.
At the other end of the Stone Arch, in the water below, 35 floating rings have just been anchored.
"They change position all the time," said artist Maja Spasova, glancing down at them from the bridge.
This public art project, called "Life Rings", sprung from the minds of Spasova and poet Todd Boss.
"This is not a memorial to the survivors. It's really about the shared experience we all had as Minnesotans when the bridge went down," Boss says. Spasova adds, "This is about rebirth. The white color (of the rings) is the color of peace forgiveness, freedom."
Meant to accompany a viewing of the rings is the sound of Boss' poetry. He's written 35 poems, inspired by the 35W Bridge. Sitting by the water, he recites one:
"Not water but air is where the fallen fall first. Not landing, but numbing to the fact that landing is coming, is the worst part of falling. Not losing a loved one but calling and calling."
Viewing the life rings for the first time, Erica was touched.
"It's meaningful to me that people care enough to use their creativity to remember and to continue to grieve."
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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