It was hot, more so in my memories, a dried and crumbling landscape reminisce of a apocalyptic movie. Realistically it had only topped 90 a couples of times in the past week but the stifling humidity made Minnesota feel like a rainforest. It had been a week of cumbersome warmth, akin to wearing a wet blanket in 90 degree weather.
She packed a cooler full of snacks and frozen water bottles, preparation for a day spent in the car driving around the twin cities. Going from house to house, mostly supervisor duties now as she met with one of her team and their clients. The water and snacks were previsions for the commutes in the hot weather, preparations that her active lifestyle accustomed her too.
I hadn’t seen him in a while. I was the best man in his wedding and in a few months time he was standing up in mine. It’s sad to say that being 30 minutes away made us so distant but it was the truth. He was married with a kid, which absorbed a majority of his time.
Today we were going to get together to watch a movie. We had been planning it for a while and I rushed home from work to make sure that I had everything set up and turned the oven on for a frozen pizza.
She was going to meet her cousins that night for dinner, one of whom was my fiancé. That is how I got the chance to meet up with my friend. The heat was oppressive, traffic was bad and she had one more appointment for that day.
We didn’t start the movie right away. We wanted to catch up and just enjoy the air conditioning for a while. I had changed clothes since work and was sitting in my shorts and a t-shirt with “College” written across the front of it. I don’t even remember if we turned the movie on or not.
She finished with her last meeting. It was a good end to the work day. The client was moving on having really made some strides and it was the reward for social work. She wanted to jet out of there but her social worker that she was supervising wanted to chat. She took the time and left a few minutes later; those few minutes meaning more than she could possibly imagine.
Traffic was choked by road construction on the bridge and practically everywhere else. She was going to be late for dinner with her cousins. She called to let them know and then began calling her friend to chat. She preferred to pass the time in her car on the phone.
The phone calls were dropping. She kept calling back and finally resolved to just leave a message as her car approached the bridge, traffic backing up into a near standstill. She doesn’t remember if she saw the construction workers but the effect was impossible to miss, each inch creeping her closer to a ledge she knew about but went unnoticed.
We rarely truly recognize our surroundings. She didn’t notice the cars around her, the people in them or the cars behind her. She saw them but she couldn’t tell you who was in each car. She didn’t notice much until she felt something, a stirring in her stomach that let her know something wasn’t right. She was swaying, if only slightly. Looking ahead she saw the cars waving from side to side, not great movements but perceivable as if the heat rising from the road was causing a mirage.
Instinct took over, her hands gripping the wheel, adrenaline pumping through her veins as her heart called out to God, praying for a situation she couldn’t yet understand.
Her horizon cleared as cars dropped as if of a shelf and were lost to her field of vision. The road was rising above her as she felt her stomach drop. “Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh!” Her voice raised as the beep began the message she was leaving, but it was cut short as her phone again disconnected.
Too much came to her mind. It was like reliving her life in a neatly organized and sorted fashion; a parade of family, friends and memories rushed by in that never ending moment. A realization and peace was there too. She was ready for this, for death, now staring perpendicularly at the rising road piece.
The dust settled on the hood of her silver Grand Prix. The fall had felt surprisingly gentle, her car still running. She sat there for a brief moment unsure of what to do. She hadn’t landed in the water, a small consolation after having fallen 85 feet onto a seldom used road. Rolling down the window she yelled to a man nearby who had ventured from his car. “Is it okay for me to get out of my car?” She coughed, dust falling in the open window. “Oh yeah. We’ve landed.” Not something you expect to hear from your car.
I don’t remember thinking something was wrong, but I don’t remember being anxious. I am not sure about what or perhaps that is just my way of dealing with it. Her family, close friends also reported know that she was in danger and some called almost instantly after hearing the news, claiming they knew she was on the bridge.
Maybe it was the calming influence of her faith, the silent prayers offered or maybe it was her training as a social worker but she wasn’t alarmed yet. She called 911 on her phone and tried to explain what had happened. Already the disorientation of the trauma had effected her as she struggled to relate where she was, continually giving the name of a bridge that did not exist. She also called her cousins to let them know that she wouldn’t be making it for dinner.
My fiancé called me sounding more confused than anything. “She said that part of the bridge she was on collapsed and that she was on the Washington Ave Bridge. Can you turn on the news and see what is going on.” We could only watch movies at our house at the time and since I couldn’t find anyone around who had a TV for me to watch, my friend and I hopped in my car and started to drive toward the area my wife had thought she meant. “She said that a part of the bridge she was on had collapsed and then she said she had to go and hung up.” My fiancé had related.
There was crying coming from some of the other cars. Next to her a woman named Danielle had exited her car. The man in the SUV in front of her wasn’t able to exit his as his back hurt and he was unable to move his legs. The isolated platform where she landed limited her view of the span of the incident. The enormity not able to overtake her, she stood there taking in a small dusty section of an overwhelming and tragic situation. She viewed dusty cars amidst slabs of broken concrete pierced by green steel. Everything was wrong but she was unable to piece it together yet.
People appeared over the ledge having scrambled up a wooden ladder, wanted to evacuate people. She didn’t know if she wanted to leave. There were still people there who needed help. She could help.
One of these men asked Erica is she had any extra clothes and water. She had blankets and water in the trunk of here car but that had been smashed by the large section of road that had fallen behind her. The car had been so close to either being crushed or flipping during the fall, but she didn’t have time to consider it. They got the water and blankets through the back seat for those who needed them.
She had done what she could and now it was time to get off this concrete island. She took her bag and went to the wall where people were waiting to help. “You had better watch out because I might give you a show.” She said to someone standing at the bottom of the ladder. She had worn a skirt that day and tried to use humor to make herself feel more comfortable with what needed to happen as if comfort were achievable. The man politely turned away but she couldn’t have that either. “You can’t look away because you can’t help me if you look away.” There was truth and exasperation in that statement.
Erica put what she had brought with her by the river and started to take in what the rising wall of road had hidden from her. The Bridge was gone.
We were driving down to the river when a cop car turned in front of us. I decided that the cop probably knew where he was going so we followed and parked when we got down to the river road. Scrambling along the road wearing inadequate footwear, I was struck by the chaos that greeted me.
In my mind I had relegated certain imagery to 3rd world, war-torn countries. To see people helping crying and bloody children down the street and set them next to the black metal fence stopped me in my tracks. There was confusion everywhere and I still didn’t know really what was happening.
The police had showed up and were starting to set up a perimeter so they asked us to move back, but the asking was only politeness. In truth if I had known where she was or even what was happening I doubt I could have been convinced to retreat but I was in shock, confused by what my fiancé had told me and what I was nose to nose with.
It hadn’t completely connected with her yet that she had been on this bridge that she was now looking at, sitting water level on the Mississippi River. She wouldn’t address that for a while yet. One of the first responders started giving orders to people who had come to help. She got caught up in the tide of helping and received orders to grab equipment from the truck and bring it down to the bridge.
I needed a vantage point where I could see the whole of what was going on. My head was spinning a mixture of confusion and horror, trying to make sense of what I was looking at. I saw a few people standing on a parking garage nearby. My friend and I made our way over there. “It looks like one whole side of the bridge has collapsed.” I sputtered out of shock. “That’s a different bridge. Both sides are in the water.” Someone answered. “Did you know someone who was on it?” I pulled the phone from my pocket. I had tried to call her a couple of times but got the “All circuits are busy” message. “My fiancés cousin was on it. She called them right before it went down.” At that time I thought she had hung up when her part of the bridge was collapsing.
“You need to go home.” I told my fiancé. “Why, what’s going on?” I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t want her to have to drive home dealing with what was going on and not having me there. “I said go home. You need to go home right now.” We argued until I told her “The whole bridge is in the water. Go home now and I will come home when I can.”
She was standing there when they pulled the first body from the water. The body was mostly covered but she could tell that the person had died. “I can’t be here.” She told herself as the realization of what she had been through finally started to reach her. Her emotions tried to overwhelm her but she held out and called the friend who she had been leaving the message for, thankfully they hadn’t heard the message yet. “All I see is a school bus and truck on fire.” She wondered what else was going on because she hadn’t seen the bus yet. The sheer magnanimity of the situation was still rushing past her too fast to recognize.
I kept trying to call her and at the same time I was upset that I had work sandals. I asked my friend to drive my car home and I would stay down at the site but he suggested we wait until we had a better plan. His thinking was much more solid at the moment so he stayed with me for a while. We were back down on the river road looking to see if we could see her car but she was on the other side of the river. Calling, we hoped to figure out where she was and get her out of there and to a hospital.
She got a hold of my fiancés mom, her aunt, and filled her in on what was happening, hoping they would contact her parents. Her adrenaline finally subsiding allowed the pain and emotions to slam against her. She felt small, tired and unequal to the moment. Finally she had become overwhelmed with the full weight of the tragedy. But she could give up and rest yet. She still had to get out of there.
She asked an EMT what to do. “If you can walk out of here, go find someone to take you to a hospital. If you don’t, you’ll be waiting here for hours for us to take you there. She grabbed the girl who had fallen next to her and together they lugged what they had pulled from their cars up a hill in search of a way out.
The police kept moving the perimeter further back in order to make room for the swell of emergency responders who had flooded the area. I remember thinking that every fireman and EMT from the metro area must have been there. It was then that a cameraman asked me if I knew someone on the bridge. “My fiancés cousin was on it. We don’t know where she is.” He interviewed me for the news. I don’t remember word for word what I said but it was something to the extent of “You want to stay out of the police and firefighters way but at the same time you want to know… is my loved one okay.”
The line kept getting pushed back. My fiancé called me to let me know her mother had talked with the cousin that was on the bridge. That let me know she wasn’t in the water and that I needed to find out where she was. But I couldn’t do anything there and my fiancé was now sitting at the apartment alone. I had called my mother, a nurse, and she was on her way down, weaving to get to my house not 2 miles from the bridge amidst the rush hour traffic and emergency vehicles. It was time for me to get back to the house.
She was stumbling, emotionally and physically exhausted. “Lord, show me a patch of grass that I can sit down at.” She prayed still walking with Danielle. Tears streaming down her phone ran, this time it was me. “Give me street names and we will come and get you.”
My mom wasn’t there yet so we called her and told her to just wait when she got to the house. My fiancé, my friend and I got into the car and drove across another packed bridge and made our way down to the area that she was waiting.
She spotted a condominium at the street corner that she had directed me to. Under it was a small patch of grass. “Danielle, that’s where we’re going.” The phone rang again her father in the manor only a father can asked “Where are you?” Her aunt had called them. Erica fell to pieces. She didn’t need to be strong anymore. Not right now and she just wanted to be her father’s little girl again, to be held and told it was going to be alright. “We’re coming. We’re packing the car and coming.” He told his daughter but she negotiated for them to come the next day.
We pulled down the cobblestone road that led down toward the bridge. There were masses of people moving toward the bridge, masses struggling away from it and masses standing and staring in bewilderment. The cannonade of sirens and flashing lights from emergency buildings bounced off of tear streamed faces, reflecting the fear in reds and blues. How were we going to find her down here? It was a disaster zone and the flood of human pain and triumph was overwhelming. But I was determined. I couldn’t do anything else, but I was going to find her and get her to a hospital. That I could do.
“Where are you at?” I don’t remember if we texted the message or if I got a hold of her. “I don’t know.” She didn’t have anything left and the confusion around her only bombarded her more. Someone spotted her and I help her and Danielle to the car and put their bags in the trunk. After taking Danielle to her sister we brought Erica back to my fiancé’s parent’s house where she lived.
Each sob was also a gasp for air as her exhaustion overtook her grief. My mom impressed upon her that it was important for her to go and get checked out so we decided to head for a hospital that was less likely to be busy.
It felt like we hadn’t even sat down in the ER before they took her back and the rest of us were left to watch the news of what we had just endured. The figures seemed false on the TV. All the captured imagery couldn’t relate the emotions, the true sights, smells and sounds of being there.
She felt overwhelmingly alone, having finally been removed from the swell of faces. She found herself unable to contain her emotions and broke down when the x-ray tech left the room for a brief moment. Her parent’s friends who were pastors and her boyfriend took up post at her side and the rest of us moved to a private waiting room. “Never do I want to feel that alone again.” She remembers.
At this point in time I started getting text messages and phone calls from people. The interview that I had on the river road had been picked up by CNN and people were checking in to see if everybody was okay. I was glad to report that she was found and at a hospital.
She was released at 11 o’clock from the hospital about 6 hours after she fell. We spent the rest of the night watching the news from the event, trying to grasp what had happened. Eventually we had to force ourselves to sleep.
Tired, frustrated and most of all blessed that Erica was okay we went to sleep. The story only having just begun.