On Aug. 1, 2007, when the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, a school bus carrying 52 kids was heading home to Minneapolis after a swimming excursion in the suburbs. Thirteen people died that day and over 100 were injured in the collapse. Miraculously, those 52 kids emerged from the back of the bus with zero or minor injuries.
That day, the kids had been taking part in a program sponsored by Pillsbury United Communities’ Waite House, a community development and human service agency based in the impoverished Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis. For these children, ranging in age from 6 to 17 years old, Waite House field trips have always been a fun and safe way to hang out with other kids in the neighborhood. But those few terrifying seconds on the bridge changed their young lives forever, turning the past year into just about the hardest they’ve ever known.
“Some of the kids are stuck and can’t move past it,” reports a somber Rachel Henderson, a family advocate for Pillsbury United Communities’ Waite House.
Henderson says the kids’ sense of safety has taken a hit, and emotional healing is proving to be a challenge.
Henderson says the kids complain about having “intrusive thoughts.”
“They think about [the collapse] a lot, replaying it in their minds, over and over,” says Henderson. “The younger kids are reenacting the collapse with toys. And parents have reported that some of the older kids are going online to find videos of the collapse. Even now, they continue to do that.”
All the children who were on the bus come from low-income families. About half of them are the children of Latino immigrants. Henderson says although these kids come from backgrounds with huge barriers to getting ahead in school, before the bridge collapse many of them were on a path toward leadership, and doing well, with plans to go to college. But Aug. 1, 2007 changed all that.
Henderson says almost all the children have fallen behind in school, and about 10 of them had serious academic problems last year. Henderson thinks the problems stem from an inability to focus. “They have difficulty sleeping at night,” Henderson says. “They have nightmares, or are really restless. A lot of them are in chronic pain. Not severe pain, thank goodness. Most of them did not have serious injuries, but still, there are a lot of kids who have continuing chronic pain.”
Reimagining Aug. 1
Helping the kids from Waite House cope with their memories and giving them a sense of empowerment about their experience has been a priority for Waite House staff, says advocate Rachel Henderson. She says art therapy has been a particularly effective tool to help the kids express feelings that are so difficult to describe in words.
As part of the healing process, Waite House kids have painted two murals in Minneapolis to coincide with the first anniversary of the I-35W bridge collapse. The murals were unveiled in an official ceremony this morning.
Waite House created the murals in partnership with Intermedia Arts center and Hope Community, a community development corporation based in the Phillips neighborhood. One mural is in the Phillips neighborhood, the other is painted on the walls of Intermedia Arts in Uptown.
Twelve-year-old survivor Mary Juanita Leonard is one of 48 children from the bus working on the project.
“I think [the murals] tell people out in the world to help others in tragedies like this one,” says Leonard. “That people care about you and will help you try to forget about what happened.”
The theme of the mural project is “Building bridges, not fences.”
The largest mural, which runs the length of a 20-foot-by-100-foot wall of the New York Plaza building at 13th and Lake streets, includes images familiar to the kids and their neighborhood. The drawings include a depiction of the Waite House building, the Minneapolis skyline, a white picket fence and other fences depicting kids going over or under them, flags of the many nationalities living in the Phillips neighborhood, and a brown arm and white arm clasping hands, symbolizing a human bridge of understanding and support. It’s about overcoming obstacles. There’s also a door…
Artist Chaka Mkali works with Hope Community and is managing the project. He says the kids wanted an image on the mural that only the survivors would understand. The kids decided on a door.
“On the bus they were on there was a back door that was busted and needed to be fixed,” says Mkali. “They were always talking about how it needed to be fixed. When the bridge collapsed, it was that door in the back of the bus — because it was broken — that allowed them to get out quickly and safely.”
The second mural covers the front of the Intermedia Arts gallery on Lyndale Avenue and 28th Street in Uptown Minneapolis. This mural depicts hands of all colors and sizes emerging from the Mississippi River’s waves to hold up a bridge. On top of the bridge sits a bus. This bridge is supporting the bus and the people in it, not collapsing into the river.
“We did not want to make a mural directly depicting the situation,” Mkali says. “We wanted to move away from that. This did happen, but it doesn’t define who you are. You’re not just the bridge victim or survivor, you’re also whatever else you aspire to be after that.”
Mkali says the process of creating the murals is just as important to the kids as the finished product.
“At the end of the day, it’s about creating a space where people can discuss their innermost thoughts about the bridge and what it means to them,” Mkali says. “It instills confidence, and leadership abilities. It’s also about using art as a vehicle for social change. This is an opportunity to get this off their chest.”
Bus survivor and mural project coordinator Julie Graves couldn’t agree more. Graves has worked at Waite House for the past six years as its Youth Program Manager. She was on the bus the day the bridge collapsed and was the most seriously injured with two broken vertebrae, a shattered ankle, broken toes and injuries requiring well over 100 stitches.
“This project has given the kids a good sense of empowerment,” Graves says. “They see it as their chance to create a message about the bridge collapse the way they want to give it.”
Graves says even for her, the past year has been challenging physically and emotionally. But Graves spends little time focusing on the negative. She says surviving the bridge collapse has strengthened a lot of qualities that already existed in her and in the Waite House community.
“The strength of our community has helped us survive this,” says Graves. “The bridge collapse reaffirmed how strong our community has been. Not that this was a good thing at all, but it just proves if you build a strong community it’s going to come back to help you, to support you at some point.”
Marisa Helms, a former award-winning metro-area reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, writes about St. Paul and east metro issues.