Emergency Responders Reflect on Bridge Collapse 10 Years Later

August 01, 2017 07:26 PM

For many, the memories of the I-35 W bridge collapse are vivid.

Even more so for emergency responders, who helped the injured well before their minds could catch up.

"It didn't quite seem real, but it was very, very real," Dr. John Hick said.


Today he's the Associate Medical Director for Hennepin County Medical Center Emergency Medical Services. A decade ago, he was called to the Mississippi to lead the trauma operation at the scene. 

"All the vehicles, those down in the water... processing that was difficult," he said.

"There were already some victims who had passed away and there was nothing that we could do for them," HCMC Paramedic Ross Chavez said.  "In my mind I thought, 'How are we going to do this? We don't have enough ambulances to deal with this.'"

Cell phone towers were down almost immediately due to the volume of calls from across the country; family and friends trying to learn if their loved ones were okay.

"You'll remember this was 2007," Chavez said. "We didn't have iPhones, smartphones, so you could look up where to go on a Google map."

"The first radio call I made was to dispatch and I said, 'Notify HCMC that they're going to be getting a lot of customers coming from us,'" Minneapolis Fire Deputy Chief Don Leedham said.

By that point, HCMC was at full capacity.

"I was getting ready to take my wife out to dinner, because Aug. 1 is her birthday," Dr. Joseph Clinton said.

Instead, Clinton would spend the evening at HCMC gathering information, helping other doctors and updating the media on the status of the victims.

"It worked," he said. "These patients got here quickly and there was a tremendous amount of heroism going on at that scene."

Some patients arrived in the back of a pick-up thanks to a good Samaritan helping at the scene, as it was nearly impossible for ambulances to access the riverbank.

"The good in this community came out in such a fundamental way," Hick said.

"I think Minnesota shined," Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said, as he stood in front of the permanent exhibit dedicated to the collapse at the Minneapolis Firefighters Hall and Museum.

The exhibit is called "81 Minutes", a nod to the amount of time it took emergency responders to rescue all survivors from the scene. 

"The fact that we had everybody transported within the hour off of that scene, I think, is nothing short of a minor miracle," Hick said.

"It seems like it happened just yesterday. It never really goes away," Fruetel said.

Fruetel said he'll never forget the names of the dead, nor the fear he felt sending his crews underneath the fractured, moving concrete.

"It was moaning and making noise for hours, even days after. It was still shifting," he said.

"It's always difficult to send people into that environment, but that's what we work here for," Leedham said.

Studies were done for weeks following the collapse to learn how to better respond so such an event.

Fruetel said the department had just finished a 5-year-long training effort on trauma communications just weeks before the bridge went down.

HCMC conducts disaster drills multiple times a year.

It's what those in charge credit for the entire system knowing how to work together and get the job done.

"I drive over that bridge every day, I think about the bridge collapse a lot because it had a big impact on me," Dr. Bill Heegaard, assistant chief for the HCMC Department of Emergency Medicine, said. "But I think we served Hennepin and the state and the county really well. And that makes me proud. I'm really proud of what I did."


Katherine Johnson

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