By Steve Karnowski
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota is preparing to give victims, historians and engineers a chance to claim some of the crumpled steel wreckage from the deadly 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge before the rest is sold for scrap.
Aug. 1 marks the six-year anniversary of when the bridge buckled and fell into the Mississippi River during evening rush hour in downtown Minneapolis, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. The Minnesota Department of Transportation had to store the bridge’s steel beams and plates until all the legal claims could be resolved, spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said. The final lawsuit was settled in November.
“There are some folks who were directly involved with the collapse who are interested in having a piece as a memento,” Gutknecht said.
The Minnesota House on Monday unanimously passed a bill to give MnDOT six months to parcel out free pieces to victims’ families, collapse survivors, the Minnesota Historical Society and certain other people or institutions with a connection to the bridge or transportation safety. The bill still awaits Senate action.
State officials expect to give away 121 tons of the 3,380 tons of steel. The remainder would be sold to metal recyclers, generating about $645,000 for the state, which would cover a tiny fraction of the millions paid out to survivors in compensation.
Helen Hausman, whose husband, Peter Hausman, died in the collapse, said it’s only right that victims’ families should get the chance to claim some steel.
“It’s like a weapon that killed their loved ones,” Hausman said, adding that she intends to give her piece to her church, which plans to use it to create a small memorial.
Survivor Garrett Ebling already has a piece of the bridge — a chunk of concrete the size of a fist that was found in his car after it was fished out of the river. He uses it as a paperweight and teaching aid when he speaks to groups about the collapse and his long road to recovery.
Ebling suffered severe internal injuries, broken bones and post-traumatic stress disorder, and still deals daily with physical pain. He’s getting counseling and said publishing a memoir on his experiences last year has helped him move forward.
Now, he wants a small piece of the steel, too.
“I hope I’m not going to end up with a giant beam I could put in my yard,” Ebling cracked.
Gutknecht acknowledged that most of the metal pieces, which have been sitting in a MnDOT yard in suburban Afton since 2010, are big and heavy.
“We can certainly cut some down to hand-carryable size,” he said.
Still to be determined is the fate of the most crucial pieces — the gusset plates that the National Transportation Safety Board said caused the collapse, breaking because they were too thin. Gutknecht said all the key pieces studied by the NTSB are in storage at a separate MnDOT facility in Oakdale.
First dibs on everything goes to the Minnesota Historical Society, according to the state legislation.
Senior Curator Adam Sher said it’s possible the society will ask for those plates.
“We have other artifacts that were related to the bridge collapse. I think it would be appropriate for us to consider a piece of the actual bridge, but we would need to consider the condition and size, and what might be useful for the interpretation of the event,” Sher said.
The society is displaying the back door from a school bus that was on the bridge and fell at least 30 feet, autographed by all the more than 50 students aboard.
“It’s a very tangible reminder of an event that impacted people in a very direct and tragic way,” Sher said. “And so it’s important to preserve those kinds of artifacts and tell their story. But is difficult sometimes to deal with issues that are tragic, but it also is something we can’t forget.”
The University of St. Thomas wants a small piece, perhaps a beam, to remind engineering students of the responsibilities they face.
It would be used to display the steel rings given to students as they’re inducted into the Order of the Engineer. Students across the country accept those rings as they pledge to uphold the standards of their profession.
Don Weinkauf, dean of the School of Engineering at St. Thomas, said using the bridge steel in those ceremonies “will be a powerful connection to that ideal. … We convey to them in a very real sense that the things they create and design and build will touch people’s lives.”