The first moments after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse were harrowing – both for the victims and for those trying desperately to rescue them.
“There’s people pinned, severely injured. We couldn’t move them,” said Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan. “It was an obviously dangerous situation, (with) stuff still falling.
“The decision was made to leave them.”
Some were trapped and dying – and little could be done, Dolan said.
“In one case, someone with serious injuries was able to say goodbye to his family,” he said, and rescue workers promised to take the message back to loved ones.
It happened more than once, said Dave Hildebrandt, a paramedic supervisor from Hennepin County Medical Center who was at the scene.
“Some of the medics did witness people that died in front of them, a lot of children crying, a lot of chaos, a lot of disbelief,” he said.
One of the first responders, Sgt. E.T. Nelson, a 20-year veteran of the Minneapolis police, heard the 911 dispatcher announce the collapse as he was walking into the First Precinct.
Disbelieving what he heard on his radio, he asked her to repeat it. “It came out again, and I went, ‘Jesus!’ ”
Arriving on the south side of the river within three or four minutes, he and Sgt. Karl Olson crawled on 12-inch beams over the water to a piece of the bridge in the river. When they reached the span – a swaying slab of concrete where 10 to 15 people were trapped and crying for help -“you could hear rivets popping and snapping,” said Nelson, 55. “You could hear the bridge creaking.”
The first vehicle they came upon was completely crushed. Nelson saw a man standing nearby. “That was me!” the man said, pointing to his car.
He said rescuers tried to calm victims whose cars had plummeted.
“A couple of the girls were hysterical and couldn’t understand how they got to that point,” he said. “I explained it’s not the fall that’ll hurt you – it’s the sudden stop at the end.” That relaxed them a bit.
Once everyone was off that span, “we left on the last boat,” Nelson said.
Steve Lydon, director of special operations for the Ramsey County sheriff’s office, got to the scene about 10 minutes after the bridge collapsed.
He saw two Minneapolis police officers strip off their gun belts, jump in the water and swim out to cars to pull people out.
“It was very heroic on their part, and they didn’t even think about it,” Lydon said. “Not even a second thought.”
With no command structure in place in those first moments, everyone – from civilians to professional rescuers – came together. A human conveyor line formed. People passed victims on backboards who had been plucked from the water.
“It just flowed,” Lydon said. “People did the right thing.”
Firefighters in T-shirts and shorts tied themselves to rebar on the bridge and swam out to get people. Civilians posted themselves near downed live power lines, warning others to avoid them.
As of 4 p.m. Thursday, Hildebrandt, the HCMC supervisor, had been working almost nonstop for 24 hours.
“I did leave for four or five hours, but I was unable to sleep,” Hildebrandt said. “The stress of the situation, and knowing you had to come back in the morning.”
How does he de-stress?
“I just try to go to a quiet place, listen to music, watch some TV,” he said. “Be alone.”
Mara H. Gottfried contributed to this report.