Garrett Ebling usually never crossed the 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis. He lived and worked in the southwest suburbs, so there was no need, except on August 1, 2007. His company picnic was held at Como Park in St Paul, and afterwards they all went to a restaurant in Roseville. He planned to go south on Snelling, then take Highway 94 to 394, back home. But he missed the turn for Snelling. Ending up on 35W, he decided that would work fine. Rush hour traffic was terrible and he thought he would take the first exit south of the bridge and cut through downtown Minneapolis to get to 394, to bypass some of the traffic. But he never got across the bridge that day.
Curtis and I live in northeast Minneapolis, just a couple miles from the 35W bridge. We drive over it all the time, but not that day. The first I heard of the collapse was when my mom called immediately to see if we were OK, and I said, "Why?" Everyone in the Twin Cities was calling everyone, to see if they'd been "on the bridge." I stood in our backyard that evening, listening to the rescue helicopters in the distance. It was an eery, surreal feeling. The next morning I was compelled to go see it with my own eyes. Police kept people back quite a way. I stood on the University Avenue overpass over 35W, and though I saw the devastation with my own eyes, I still couldn't quite believe it. As the days went by and bodies were recovered, and stories of survivors came out, I read everything I could find.
As months, then years went by, I always wondered what happened to the survivors, and the families of the victims. I searched for more information. Thirteen lost their lives in the collapse. Many of the survivors are living with chronic pain and health problems, and post traumatic stress disorder. There was a very good Star Tribune on-line article that is still on-line, about the collapse at http://www.startribune.com/13-seconds-in-august-the-35w-bridge-collapse/12166286/ It includes photos, and many interview videos. I watched an interview there with Garrett Ebling, one of the worst injured. Recently I found out he had written a book about everything he went through. Here is a link to his book, Collapsed. http://www.35wbridgecollapse.com After I read it this spring, I contacted him and asked if I could write a song about him and his experiences. He agreed right away, and we met at a coffee shop for an interview the morning of May 29. He is a trained journalist, and spoke very articulately about everything he went through.
Alone in the car that hot August day, he had his windows open and his music turned up high. He didn't even realize he was already on the bridge at first.
He told me, "I saw everybody’s brake lights in front of me went on at the same time. Normally, brake lights are staggered when you’re in stop and go traffic. Everybody stopped at the same time. That’s when I saw the first two sections of bridge go. They went straight down, didn’t dip or turn, dropped like being on an elevator, then they were gone.
What do you think (He looked at me and laughed here). It takes a second to register. Something out of a movie, not in realm of what could consciously happen. A second..... all the cars in front of me are gone. Whoosh, everybody was gone. Then there was this weird sense of relief, something bad really happened, but I’m still here....it didn’t happen to me.
In that next second, I felt everything beneath me give way. Then I remember getting really tight - grabbing the steering wheel really tight, my legs were straight and tight, foot slammed on brake. I didn’t know how high up I was, I didn’t know there was water below me, I was just preparing, bracing myself, and I started to fall, and that’s all I remember. Then I wake up in the hospital and it’s 3 weeks later."
When he finally woke up from a medically induced coma, he learned all the details of what had happened after everything went black for him that day. His car was on a section of bridge that collapsed pointing downward, and his car plunged forward into the abyss. His head was against the steering wheel, so when the airbags went off, they didn't help. He plummeted 110 feet, the equivalent of an eleven story building. The car ended upright in the water on the right side of the collapsed bridge. It was perched on debris, so the roof was above water.
A man named Rick was driving home from his job as a service technician for the cable company when he heard the crash. He drove down to the riverbank. He saw Garrett's red Ford Focus about 30 feet from shore. The water was up to Garrett's neck, and he was bleeding, and trying to get out of the car (though he has no memory of that). Rick and another man waded over to the Ford and cut his seatbelt to get him out, then pulled him through the murky water to shore.
When Garret woke up in the hospital, he slowly realized the extent of his injuries. His head had taken a terrible blow, resulting in brain trauma. The doctors did two surgeries to re-build his face, in which every facial plate was broken. They worked from three photos of him as a point of reference. He suffered a severed colon, due to the seatbelt. His left arm (his dominant one) was badly broken, as were both of his ankles. He had a collapsed lung, a ruptured diagram, tracheotomy, and a spinal injury. His jaw was wired shut, and he had tubes everywhere, including one in the top of his skull, draining excess fluid. His body was totally traumatized, with swelling everywhere. During the colon surgery, they were afraid they were losing him, and had to stop the operation temporarily and continue at a later date.
Though he was on medication, at times the pain was excruciating. I asked him what the worst of the pain was. He replied, "Out of everything, the most painful was when they took the wires out of my mouth. They were screwed into the roof of mouth, so they had to unscrew all those. They kept a dixie cup next to me, took each one out, dropped them in the cup, with my gums attached. Half of my mouth was in that cup. I was white as a ghost. My mom was in the room, and fiancee. I told them to leave. 'I don’t want you to see me, this is going to be so much pain. I have no choice, but you leave. I don’t want you to see me in this much pain.'"
The doctors told him it was a miracle he survived. He was in the hospital for 3 weeks, then in rehab facilities for another 5 weeks. Garrett pushed himself hard in physical therapy, determined to get back everything he could that the bridge had taken from him. He had to start from square one, learning to walk all over again. A therapist would help him out of his wheelchair, with his walker, which had an elevated left arm rest, in front of him. In his book Collapsed, he says, "I'd grab the walker with my right hand and place my left forearm on the arm rest. I'd step with my right foot, then push the walker a few inches forward. The next step was a little hop, pressing down with my right hand and my left elbow. It was extremely painful. The first few attempts were measured in inches. But as with everything, I pushed myself hard. I'd count the number of cinder blocks in a row along the hallway and set goals in my head. Yesterday I made it ten blocks. Can I do fifteen today?"
Eventually, he progressed enough to go back to his apartment, with both the walker and the wheelchair. He continued physical therapy, and also worked out regularly to regain his strength. Garrett was 32 when the bridge collapsed. At the interview, he told me, "My youth at the time helped, they said. I feel like I’ve aged a lot in 8 years. I feel like I’m paying for it now. I feel like 60 now. I feel 20 years older than I would have otherwise."
As he started to regain some of his strength and agility, he and his family and friends started to notice changes in his personality. Namely, he had mood swings, and was often irritable. Garret told me, "People would say, wow, you look like you’re doing good. But inside I’m just stuck. I feel hollow. I remember having the thought that I’m never going to be able to smile or laugh again. I don’t have it, don’t have it in me. No lows or highs in me anymore. Dead space. It was a real concern."
He was diagnosed with traumatic stress disorder, and just like with physical therapy, he took the bull by the horns and plunged into the pschyotherapy that would help him deal with that. He found that, due to the brain trauma, his brain no longer processed thoughts like it had before. Garrett and his therapist honed in on his stressors, and worked on reprocessing his thoughts and emotions. He ended up working through many issues from his past. Eventually, he had an eye-opening breakthrough in therapy. He told his therapist in any stressful situation, he always felt the need to keep moving forward. She asked him how he processed all the emotions, and he said he never did. He stuffed them away, so he could keep moving forward. In his book he says, "She paused and said, 'Did you hear what you just said?' And he repeated it to himself, 'I-have-to-discount-emotion-in-order-to-move-forward.'"
He made a lot of progress after this breakthrough. I asked whether he still suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome, and he answered, "PTSD you just kind of have, and you have to learn how to notice the signs when things flair up, and then you can learn to manage it. Talking through and processing is a big step to managing it, and but it doesn’t just go away. My brain has been changed." Luckily, since he blacked out as his car was falling off the bridge, he doesn't have the part of PTSD that would cause fear and anxiety, and trigger flashbacks.
Besides the lingering emotional effects, Garrett has pain in his ankles. He permanently lost his sense of smell, and several places on his face and in his mouth are numb. Overall, as he said above, he feels much older than his 40 years.
I asked if there was any silver lining at all to having gone through the collapse. Learning to work through old issues, and re-process emotions was definitely a plus, he tells me.
And finally, he adds, "The bridge provides me a forum to go and talk to people and have an effect on people. I go speak from time to time. I hit a lot of small libraries in south and central Minnesota, giving talks. I talk to kids. I’m talking to a student summer leadership camp in a couple weeks. I’ve talked to retiree groups, property manager associations…It's a door."
I was honored that Garrett spoke with me, and gave me an insight into the determination he had to heal, physically and mentally, from the 35W Bridge collapse. Hearing all that happened to him, and how he fought back, inspires me so much. He is living proof that it is possible to come back from such a life changing traumatic experience, and live a full, productive life. Garrett lives in the Twin Cities, and owns and manages two "Which Wich" Sandwich franchise restaurants, one in Blaine and one in Maple Grove. The song I wrote about him is called "The Bridge."