One year ago, a major interstate bridge in my home town collapsed into the Mississippi River.
The catastrophe mangled cars. It killed and grievously injured the human beings in them. As Senator Amy Klobuchar noted, bridges just aren't supposed to do that. This horror story brought national attention to the appalling state of our national roadway infrastructure. It’s a fair mess, and that’s a fact.
I won’t dwell on all of that today. What I will do is share with you the story of Garrett Ebling, whose great misfortune it was to be on the bridge (and subsequently in the river) when it went down.
I’ve gotten to know Garrett and his story because he works with David’s daughter. Like Garrett, she was on her way home from a company function on August 01, 2008. The only reason she didn’t end up in the wreckage with Garrett and the others was her last-minute decision to pull off the highway to gas up her car.
Garrett Ebling is a smart, funny, articulate man who has an indomitable spirit. Well, that and the love of a good woman -- his fiancee, Sonja. And about a bezillion friends.
Garrett has dwelt in and out of hell for one full year. He is still healing, by every definition. His is not the only bridge story, but it’s the one I know best.
In June, Garrett was invited to speak at the Minnesota Associated Press Association Awards banquet. When I read his speech notes, I asked him if I could share them with you here. Sure you can, he said.
Garrett Ebling is a compelling story-teller. His recounting of the bridge collapse and aftermath is powerful. I invite you to read what he told the AP gathering. All of it. Amazing.
I tore off my goggles and rubbed my eyes, trying to squeeze the salt water from the corner of my lids. I was exhausted, and I couldn’t climb out of the tank as I was covered in spandex, my feet clad in clumsy flippers and my back strapped with an air tank. I had been in that pool for days, scrubbing the walls and floor until my fingers ached so much I could have sworn they were about to fall off.
It was then that I had decided that enough was enough. I never volunteered to clean the animal tanks on this ship. How I became enslaved I did not remember, but this would be the last time I would ever do chores for a dolphin. I was going to have to make a run for it. I pulled myself up the ladder to the pool’s edge and desperately tried to dash across the deck and off the ship, which had made port. But I kept tripping on my flippers and the weight of the scuba tank prevented any quick escape. The guards tackled me and dragged me back to the tank and forced the large handled brush back into my limp grip. I wondered as I scrubbed: Would I ever be free again? When will normal return?
This nightmare replayed itself the 19 days I was kept in a medical coma following my rescue from the muddy Mississippi. Please read the rest of Garrett’s story.
Just as I had become trapped in my car after it had plunged more than 100 feet, I was now trapped in my dream, and in reality, was trapped in between the rails of a hospital bed, my hands tied down because I had a penchant for ripping out the tubes in my mouth and nose and the IVs in my arms and chest. In a moment, I had become the innocent fly whose path intersected with a web and turned him into a spider’s meal. Struggling only made the predicament worse.
My name is Garrett Ebling, and I was one of roughly 150 people who were on the Interstate 35W bridge at 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007. If you can recall, it was a typical early August day - hot, somewhat muggy, the sun had beamed down a good chunk of the afternoon. My Great Clips department co-workers and I had escaped from our cubicles for the afternoon as we held our summer picnic on the grounds of Como Park. We nibbled on sandwiches next to a park shelter and later scurried around the zoo in teams as we sought to collect the most points during a scavenger hunt. When the event ended, we all decided to head over to the Buffalo Wild Wings in Roseville in search of shade, a cool drink and a few appetizers.
My co-workers, all females, congratulated me on my engagement four days earlier and presented me with a greeting card offering their well-wishes as my fiancee Sonja and I ventured toward our wedding day.
The evening rush hour had descended upon us, and it was time to go. The wives and mothers who had surrounded me had families to tend to - one job down, one more to go. I pulled out of the parking lot at about 5:45 p.m. and called Sonja on my cell phone. She was en route to the North Shore intending to check out some churches that might fit her expectations as suitable wedding sanctuaries. I rolled down my car window to wash myself in the warm breeze.
Distracted by the phone conversation, I missed my turn onto Snelling Ave. My intention was to ride it south to I-94 and take that through Minneapolis to get me back home to the western suburbs. No worries. A sign pointing me to I-35W south hung overhead. “Might as well take that. What’s the difference?” I thought.
Well, the difference turned out to be everything.
I was heading south across the I-35W bridge. Due to a combination of rush hour and construction, the traffic on the bridge was intense and stop-and-go. A former managing editor, I am impatient by nature, and thus was irritated by the fact that it was going to be a slow ride home. I decided to get to the far right so that I could exit off of the interstate at the very next opportunity and snake my way home along roads less traveled. The next exit sat at the other end of the bridge.
I got about one-third a way across when the bridge violently shook. I looked to the side, then ahead, just in time to see the brake lights of the vehicles ahead of me drop out of sight as if I was watching an action-adventure movie on the screen in front of me. Half a second later I felt my Ford Focus hatchback jolt and a sense of weightlessness beneath my tires. I was falling. How far and into what I did not know.
The rest of the day I only know from second-hand accounts, thanks to amnesia, though I was conscious as the dust settled around my car and the water began rising within it. Because of the severity of my fall, my seat belt had jammed, trapping me in my seat. Somehow I managed to get my left leg out the driver-side window. Two young men -- one a dental student from the U and the other a Comcast cable driver -- rushed to the river’s edge and swam to my car. Finding me stuck, one of them swam back to shore and miraculously found a device to bring back and cut me loose. They pulled me out of the car as the water had risen to just below my neck and floated me to shore. My face was covered in blood and in between gurgles I spat out my name. Once on shore, the paramedics took over and within an hour I was in surgery at HCMC.
My injuries were vast: two broken feet (surgery), a broken arm (surgery), a severed colon (surgery), a ruptured diaphragm, a collapsed lung, a broken jaw in three places (surgery), an injury to my right eye, and broken plates in my face (2 surgeries). The trauma to my face was immense: doctors said it was equivalent to driving into a brick wall at 100 mph. My face, essentially, had shattered; the olfactory nerves severed. The bones, as fine as potato flakes. They had to rebuild me using nothing more than their experience and a good guess.
When I was asked to speak this evening, it wasn’t simply to recount my journey as a bridge collapse survivor but rather as a survivor viewing that journey with the eyes of a journalist. That was an interesting proposition to me, as I hadn’t really given it much thought. My focus early on had been strictly on my personal physical recovery, so much so that it was to the detriment of other states of recovery -- mental, emotional, spiritual -- and negatively affected my relationships with others. I need to learn how to sit up again. I need to learn how to walk again. I need to learn how to shower again. When will I be able to go home? Will I be able to return to work? Is my fiancee still going to want to marry me when every morning she must wake next to a broken face? I hadn’t really thought about what I had seen by looking through a journalistic lens. But the reality, I discovered, was that I had always had done it - I just never realized it.
So what was it like to be a journalist going through this?
Ironically, I was likely the last Minnesotan to even know what the aftermath of the collapse consisted of. I had been heavily sedated and don’t remember much of anything until Aug. 19. Thirteen people died? Really? The president of the United States was here? Are you kidding? Journalism first played a role in the bridge collapse for me as I read old issues of newspapers in print and online, trying to piece together those first couple of weeks after the accident when the world kept moving and I didn’t.
Not that I never thought with a journalistic mind. For example, back in October all of the bridge victims were asked to gather at a St. Paul police precinct to meet with members of the National Transportation Safety Board. They wanted to confirm where we were on the bridge when it fell to help them with their investigation. Additionally, they wanted to brief us on what they had done up to that point and what they had yet to do. When the official had finished his spiel, he opened up the floor to questions. There was one question to which the official did not wish to speculate, but instead of saying that, he went with the cliche “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” I looked up and believe my recently unwired jaw hit the floor. “Did he just say what I thought he said?” I looked around to see if anyone else had caught it, but I think it passed over most people’s heads. Here I had the perfect pull quote fall into my lap and I could do nothing with it. It took everything within me not to stand up and say “Really? Do you really think we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it? I mean, let’s take a look at our track record. I think out of any group of people, we are the last ones you’d want to cross a bridge with!”
It’s one thing to report the news; it’s another to be the news. This is a concept that I have become much more aware of since the bridge collapse. As journalists, we often feel as if we are working hand in hand with our subjects to tell a story, but I don’t necessarily think that is the case. Too often we fail when we abide only by our own habits or the barking orders of our editors and we forget to take into account the perspectives and feelings of our subjects. It is they whom we should treat as preciously as our stories, because in reality it is their story in our words, not our story in our words. I think that often gets forgotten.
When it came to the media coverage, I was lost in the chaos. The first two months following the collapse, I was still in the hospital. There were some media requests intermittently, but my family decided that if any talking was going to be done, it would be my decision. With a jaw wired shut and a trach inserted into my throat, I didn’t feel like saying anything, not that I could really say much at all.
Not that there weren’t other bridge victims to talk to. One of the first victims I remember reading about was the pregnant woman who survived and doctors induced labor. That was a very compelling story, as was that of the Coulters, a family heading to a send-off dinner for their eldest daughter on her way to college - a special occasion they never were able to celebrate as they were just feet from making it safely across the bridge.
My first encounter with the media was at the press conference announcing the initiative to put forth a victims’ compensation bill in this spring’s legislative session. I had been home for a couple of weeks and was starting to get more mobile, despite still being in a wheelchair. I had purchased a new vehicle and had decided to go and hear what the lawmakers had to say firsthand and to meet some of my fellow bridge survivors. When I arrived, I rolled in attempting to blend in as much as much as I could, considering I was a guy in a wheelchair two months removed from two facial reconstruction surgeries. It didn’t work. Bridge victims spoke both before and after various state representatives, pleading their cases for state intervention. It was heartwrenching to hear the stories of the widows who shared their last moments on the phone with their loved ones before tragedy altered their lives forever.
There was time left over at the end for anyone else who wished to speak. Perhaps it was the intensity of the moment or the fact that I did not know if or when I would ever have the chance to share my story that I raised my hand and rolled forward to address the lawmakers - and the camera-wielding members of the media. After saying my peace, I rolled back to where I had placed myself previously, peering at the journalists through the peripheral and noting which ones were looking at me like dogs just noticing that a Milkbone truck had overturned on the neighborhood street. Just like my recurring hospital dream, my hope was to make a run for it, but as a novice wheelchair driver I knew I had no chance. I got to the elevator lobby before being inundated with requests for interviews. I took a few business cards and told everyone that I would contact those with whom I was interested in speaking.
Initially, I only spoke with members of the print press. If I was going to share my story I wanted to do it in a format that would allow time and space to adequately tell it. Two-minute stories on the local news weren’t going to cut it. I spoke to two magazine reporters - one of whom I had known from my time working in Faribault - and then the AP in December asked to do an article as well. Additionally, they wanted to fly a video reporter from their New York bureau out to cover the story for online video subscribers. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea but since it was the AP, I agreed. I didn’t do anything with local TV until I spoke at Roseville Lutheran Church as part of their 6-month remembrance of the collapse in February. I followed that up in April and May with TV news interviews when at the Capitol during the legislative process to craft a successful compensation bill. By that time, there were few victims who were willing to continue to go in front of the cameras. So, I agreed to step forward.
I want to genuinely thank you for all of your work involving the 35W bridge collapse, for finding the stories and telling them. As journalists we all have that one event that defines our careers. For me, it was Sept. 11, when I worked for a daily newspaper in Northern Virginia, the southern burbs of D.C. Seventeen people from our county died while working at the Pentagon on that fateful Tuesday morning. Never had I felt such an honor and sense of duty then when I helped tell those stories that carried such incredible impact.
I don’t doubt that Aug. 1 may have been that day for some of you. Appreciate that moment and your role as storytellers for so many -- from the likes of me who learned about the moments and days after the collapse from newspaper accounts to those who will be learning about this tragedy in Minnesota history classes in years to come. It is you to whom I am grateful.
Throughout the course of your journalism career you will interview victims and survivors, be it bridge collapses, tornados or cancer. Each has been through more than you could or want to understand. Be sensitive to their situations, be honest and up front about what you will do with the stories they have been kind enough to share. Show courtesy and heart. It will allow your sources to be comfortable, which in turn will create the environment for a beautiful story to emerge.
Tonight I’ve detailed how one seemingly normal, everyday decision - to attempt to cross a bridge - proved to be the biggest of my life: The difference left me in various hospitals for two months. It took away my ability to stand for long periods of time, to ever be able to run a 5K, to talk at length without an aching jaw, to lift heavy furniture when my brother-in-law asks for help moving out of one house and into another, to smell my fiancee’s perfume or smoke from a dangerous fire, to understand the significance of my life change, to cope with the fact it needed to change.
In my recurring nightmare I pleaded for normal to return. I also earnestly prayed for normalcy as I laid in a hospital bed and watched summer tumble into fall. Somewhere along the way I came to the realization that if normal meant returning to how I was before the collapse happened, I would never feel whole again. But I’ve found something different that works for me. I think other bridge survivors will find that too. And part of that discovery stems from the ability to have a voice so that others may better understand your situation - and that’s where journalism plays its role so beautifully.
Garrett and Sonja will be married this weekend. They chose the date with great intention. It is their way of reclaiming the early days of August so that as time passes, they can observe August 1 as a celebration of life and love rather than loss.
Best of the very best to you, Garrett and Sonja. And yes, please come for a visit when you can!