Dave Scharnhorst remembers the roar of rush hour as he crossed the I-35W bridge on Aug. 1, 2007.
Scharnhorst, an IT worker for the Salvation Army and a Columbia Heights resident, was heading home from Albert Lea, Minn., that day, traveling north on 35W. Soon he was crossing the bridge.
“I heard behind me what I thought was heavy construction,” Scharnhorst, now 44, recalls. “I thought, ‘Why would they be doing such heavy construction during rush hour?'”
To his left, he noticed a construction worker getting out of a portable outhouse in one of the construction staging areas set up on the bridge. “He looked south and ran north,” Scharnhorst says. And the noise got louder.
The noise, he soon figured, was not road construction.
Scharnhorst didn’t know what to make of what was happening, but he instinctively pressed on the gas pedal of his 2000 Dodge Intrepid, goosing the vehicle’s speed from about 30 mph to 40. Then he felt the back axis of his car buckle, and buckle again. “It bounced a bit.”
Scharnhorst’s car made it off the bridge, and thinking he’d check out his car and what had just happened, he pulled over, bracing to venture out into the traffic jam.
Except there wasn’t one.
“One car went by,” he says, “and there was no more traffic.”
Scharnhorst says one picture of the aftermath in the Star Tribune shows that his car and that other car were the last two to make it off the northbound side of the I-35W bridge. But, in the moment, Scharnhorst didn’t know that was the case. In fact, he had no idea what to make of the scene.
“There was a huge plume of dust, cement and dirt. And as soon as that went over, that was it. Silence.”
Confused at the eerie and surreal scene, Scharnhorst struggled to grasp what had happened. “I was seeing it, and it just didn’t make any sense,” he says. “What is it? The bridge fell?”
The other end of the bridge
Surely Scharnhorst’s reaction was similar — if not exactly the same — to those of the hundreds who were caught on the bridge. And not unlike the reaction from the thousands, and then millions, who watched the footage on local and then national television.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, confusion was the order of the day. Surely a bridge doesn’t just pancake into the river like that. Naturally, terrorism theories abounded in those first few hours, despite declarations from law enforcement and then elected officials that there was no reason to suspect such activity.
What could otherwise explain it? Fate? No, not likely just that.
But fate is maybe part of an answer to Scharnhorst’s narrow escape, just as it was for the legion of motorists who crossed the bridge just minutes, even seconds, earlier. Or maybe it was part of the answer for those who were stuck in traffic, and never made it onto the bridge on either end before it collapsed.
But what about the others? Fate can be cruel, so goes the cliché, but not so cruel as to take the lives of 13 and take a piece of the lives of those hundreds who were seriously injured or scarred, physically or emotionally. Nothing else could explain that away.
On the other side of the river, on the southbound side of the bridge, Chuck Hoffman was having a sort of mirror-image experience to Scharnhorst’s at the same time.
The computer-tech specialist from New Brighton was traveling about 25 mph in his Subaru Forester, and, he, too, noticed some construction workers. “They were getting ready to leave for the day, and they were packing up their coolers,” Hoffman, now 61, says. “Then the car started dropping. And then it dropped again.”
Hoffman looked in his rearview mirror and saw nothing — that is, the bridge had vanished behind him. “I looked at the section I was on at the far end — that never collapsed — and it was undulating like water.”
He realized he was on the last section of what seemed to be a falling bridge, and stepped on it. “I thought, Holy shit, I wonder if I’m going to get off of here.”
He did, though he’s not sure how or why. And suddenly, like Scharnhorst, he was virtually by himself.
“There were a lot of cars, and then it seemed like I was alone,” Hoffman recalls. “I suppose in a situation like that, you develop a sort of tunnel vision, but I sure didn’t see anybody behind me.
“About a week later on ‘CCO [WCCO television] … they had gotten footage from the traffic camera. They showed traffic leaving the bridge, and all of a sudden, there’s one more car. That was me. I was the next car ahead of that school bus. I was that car.”
I arrived at the site, as a reporter, about 15 minutes after the bridge fell, having ridden my bike from my nearby condo. After initially heading toward the river bank and seeing the destruction from about 70 yards away, I was shooed away by a Minneapolis police officer, who told me media types were being corralled at a nearby parking ramp on 13th Avenue South, overlooking West River Road.
When I got to the ramp, the first person I talked to was Chuck Hoffman. He had successfully exited the interstate onto Washington and pulled into that parking ramp. His recollection today is much like what he told me then. “I looked in my rearview mirror, and in about two seconds it was down,” I have him saying in my notebook at the time. “I’m just getting over the shakes.”
But I noticed that Hoffman was oddly calm and lucid, and in fact didn’t seem terribly shaken.
“I was in shock,” Hoffman says now. After the collapse, we looked at the damage together for a few more minutes — we both agreed that the dead probably numbered in the hundreds — and Hoffman sort of shrugged and said he was going to go home.
Then he climbed in his Forester, negotiated through the throngs of gawkers and rescue vehicles, and drove away.
‘I began falling, nose first’
Somewhere in-between Scharnhorst and Hoffman, Garrett Ebling was having a different experience—not a sensation of silence or isolation, but the unmistakable sensation of falling.
The Plymouth resident, who works in the communications department for Great Clips corporate offices, had the windows down and the radio up in his Ford Focus. He was in the far-right lane of the southbound side, a third to halfway across the bridge — maybe equidistant from Scharnhorst and Hoffman.
“When the bridge collapsed, the center span fell in two sections,” Ebling, now 33, writes in an email interview. “The south section fell first. I was on the north section so I witnessed the cars on that south section plummet into the river a fraction of a second before I began falling, nose first. I was driving a small car, a Ford Focus hatchback. When they pulled the car out of the river, the entire front end was smashed all the way back to the windshield.”
Ebling was in no better shape: he suffered two broken feet, a severed colon, a broken arm, a broken jaw, crushed facial bones, nerve damage to right eye, loss of smell, a collapsed lung and ruptured diaphragm. The Ford Focus had done a nose dive into some concrete and ended up in the water. By the time someone rescued Ebling, his car was in the water and sinking.
“The car was half in the water and half on top of debris,” Ebling writes. “I was pulled out by two men. My seat belt had jammed so they had to cut it to free me. When they pulled me out, the water was up to my neck.”
Ebling has had to piece his story together, either because the trauma left him unconscious or he has blocked some things out. “I don’t recall much was wrong until the actual collapse. I felt a swaying motion a split second before watching the span in front of me plunge into the river. At the time I had already had my driver’s window rolled down and the music was on pretty loudly so I didn’t hear anything, nor did I see any construction workers scamper, as some have said.”
Besides that, Ebling doesn’t recall much, which may be a good thing, he writes. “Because of amnesia, I don’t recall the events immediately following the collapse. I was conscious but I must rely on accounts of others, news accounts, youtube, etc. to fill in the gaps. Therefore, I don’t have memories except for the moment just before and during the collapse. I have not been haunted through nightmares, etc. The amnesia really is a blessing.”
‘What should I do?’
While Ebling’s car was filling with water, Scharnhorst was still pulled off to the side of the road, trying to comprehend what had happened.
“On the northbound side, there were no cars at all,” he recalls, adding that he was in “classic shock.” “My immediate feeling was I should do something. But what should I do?”
Scharnhorst looked over the side of the bridge on the northbound side, and saw nothing underneath the bridge, just an embankment. On the southbound side, there was a section of bridge at an angle so steep that he couldn’t get down the bank to rescue anyone. He turned to the woman whose car had immediately followed his, and he comforted her.
“She was really shaken up, and her dashboard had jarred loose. She was fine, but she wasn’t sure she was fine,” Scharnhorst says. “I spent my time with her and tried to help her grasp what was going on. She said, ‘Did a bridge fall down?’ And I said, ‘I think it did.'”
For 45 minutes, the couple — Scharnhorst does not remember the woman’s name — tried to call their spouses on cell phones, and surveyed the wreckage from above, thinking there were hundreds dead. Eventually they each drove up the interstate to the Metrodome Sheraton, where the woman’s husband came to pick her up. Scharnhorst made his way home.
“It was very calm, surreal and serene in a very macabre sense,” Scharnhorst says. To this day, Scharnhorst carries a bit of what he calls “survivor’s remorse,” and wonders if he should have done more to join the rescue efforts, especially after he got home and saw the footage on TV — though he’s not sure what he could have done.
“Her and I worked together, and I can’t make more of it than what it was,” Scharnhorst says, downplaying the idea of being a hero. “My job was to be there for her, and I believe she was there for me. I needed to worry about her, so I didn’t worry about me.”
‘Nothing short of a miracle’
Hoffman, like Scharnhorst, made it home to see what he had just survived on television. But Hoffman doesn’t feel like he’s a survivor, necessarily. “I was not part of the catastrophe,” Hoffman says. “I was outside of it, but close to it.”
Both men say they’ve been largely free of psychological trauma that afflicted many of the others involved in the collapse. “I had a couple of bad dreams,” Hoffman says. “But I don’t think I suffered from post-traumatic stress. I’ve been lucky.”
Scharnhorst says he thinks about the disaster every day, but mostly about what he could have done for others. “I wonder if I’m just making stuff up to justify my reaction,” he says. “But realistically there’s nothing I could do.”
He has one shot of gallows humor: “Hopefully my speeding that day [from Albert Lea] was justified.”
Scharnhorst plans to attend the memorial ceremony on Friday evening at Gold Medal Park, if for no other reason than to find the woman he came to know that day. (Hoffman is on a trip and won’t make the ceremony.)
As for Ebling, he’s counting his blessings too.
“Overall, I’d say my physical recovery is nothing short of a miracle, all things considered,” he writes. “I still have discomfort in my left foot — it can cause me to limp a little at times — and there is arthritis in it, so that likely will be a lifelong thing. There is a possibility of future surgeries on that foot or my face should things change over time. I’ve got braces on my teeth — working on getting my teeth all lined up again.”
Despite suffering and recovering from harrowing injuries, Ebling says now the psychological part needs work.
“Mental/emotional recovery has taken longer,” he writes. “Started seeing a mental health counselor in January and still attending. Have Adjustment Disorder, like PTSD, but [I] don’t have the flashbacks/nightmares. But things have improved greatly. Feeling more reconnected to the world and not so sullen.”
He’s had plenty of time to contemplate all that happened, but ultimately feels positive: “I think when the collapse happened, the volume of support from family, friends and strangers was difficult to digest. When tragedy strikes the world still responds — that’s wonderful to feel firsthand.”
But he cautions that he hasn’t been all warm and fuzzy. “It was a very frustrating period for me,” he writes of his conflicting emotions. “People were going about their lives all around me and I felt like my old life had been taken from me and I didn’t know how to get this new one successfully started. It still can be a struggle at times. On the flip side, I feel like I’ve been given this second chance at life. Not many people get that. So now I sit and ponder what to do with it.”
The Saturday before the bridge collapse, Ebling proposed to his girlfriend, Sonja Birkeland. By the following Wednesday, he was in the midst of an unthinkable disaster. On Friday, Ebling’s first anniversary of surviving that, he says that at 6 p.m., he’ll say a prayer for the deceased and the survivors.
But he won’t be at the memorial service. He and his fiancée are headed up north. They’re getting married this weekend.
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.