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‘I would just listen to the survivors tell their stories’

Marsha Porter wasn’t at the site of the collapse. She wasn’t in her car, she wasn’t on the I-35W bridge, and she didn’t end up in the water.

But in some ways, Porter might know more about the bridge collapse than any second-hand observer. Porter, a licensed independent clinical social worker (or LICSW, in the vernacular of the field), volunteers for the Red Cross. The day after the disaster one year ago today, Porter and other volunteers began fielding calls—from people seeking their loved ones, from people who survived the collapse, from people who saw it on television and became distressed. They took 1,000 in three days.

“Anything and everything,” is how Porter described the nature of the calls in an interview at the Red Cross offices Wednesday. “Families waiting for bodies to be recovered to people wanting things from their vehicle on the bridge.”

By her own estimate, Porter talked to as many as 100 people on the phone and another hundred in person. And the conversations continued for days, weeks, and even months.

How do you talk to those who lost loved ones, or survived the collapse?

“It’s a tough one,” Porter said. “I don’t want to intrude. I just listen to the survivors tell their stories.”

And sometimes she heard the same stories, over and over again.

“People really need to verbalize what happened, and they’d walk me through second by second,” Porter said. “It’s the mind and body’s way of trying to understand anything that is way far outside the realm of expectations or experience.”

Stories that stick with her
Porter carried a relatively sunny disposition for someone used to hearing harrowing tales. A peace symbol dangled from one of the bracelets on her arm, and her eyes sometimes lit up at the notion of the triumph of the human spirit. Listening to her, one can glean a more vivid picture of what happened on Aug. 1, 2007.

One story Porter recounted was from a woman whose car went under water. She escaped and sat on a concrete block. The woman was from another country — Porter can’t remember which — and was a Buddhist. She told Porter that at each step — the car going down, her escape, waiting for rescue on the rock — she thought to herself, “This is where I will die.” While the woman was waiting, expecting to perish, she said she prayed for everyone else who was on the bridge.

“In the telling and retelling, you get to an incredible level of detail,” Porter said. “That level of detail can integrate into a resolution, finding an end for a story that has no end. Even if it isn’t accurate, it helps. Some survivors have a blank.”

Someone eventually found the woman, and for a while she would repeat what she heard when she was rescued: “Please try to stay calm.”

Porter didn’t use the word closure, but instead sought to resolve these stories for people — whether she talked to them on the phone, visited them in their homes or found them in hospital rooms.

Porter also did extensive work with the children from the Waite House, those who were stuck and eventually rescued on the school bus.

“The kids saw so much, and they absorb things like a sponge,” she said. “They experience things through all five senses. They remember the smell, they felt the heat from the truck that was on fire. But a lot of them didn’t have complete stories.”

Porter said one 3 ½-year-old boy was particularly stuck in the repetition of telling the same story from that day. The boy, interestingly, was not on the bridge, but his two older brothers were on the Waite House bus. He had absorbed their stories, and it distressed him. After a number of tellings, Porter decided to come up with a “resolution” for his story.

What was it?

“Very simple, actually,” she said. “It was ‘And everyone is OK.’ Nobody on that bus died.”

The presence of its absence
The Red Cross offices, in a twist of irony, overlook the river right where the bridge once stood. For months, employees at the Red Cross have been looking out their windows at the site, and it’s been hard on them as well.

While much of the emphasis has rightly been on the deceased and the survivors, Porter pointed out that there’s a hole in the community as well. For many in the metro area, that bridge was a part of their daily lives. And now daily commutes go by the construction site — a difficult reminder of a dark day for everyone.

The riverfront is also a neighborhood now, far more so than it was 10 years ago, and Porter said she heard from downtown residents and workers that they felt the loss. And that they would feel guilty, given that so many others suffered far worse.

“There’s community trauma, and it’s important to understand the whole thing, especially something hugely symbolic like the bridge,” she said. “It’s disorienting for people. It’s your community and your route.”

That’s why Friday evening’s memorial ceremony, in Porter’s view, is important not just for families of the deceased and those who made it, but for everyone.

“People are processing this in all kinds of timetables,” Porter said, acknowledging that it’s taken longer than she initially would have thought. “Stuff like [the ceremony] is so important. In no way should people feel that this needs to be behind them and settled.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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