Thursday, August 02, 2007

A terrible beauty is born

The images, now ubiquitous, are horrifying. The twisted green metal superstructure, tangled and jutting out at bizarre angles, providing a reminder of the incredible force unleashed. The slab of concrete blocks the river flow, with equally large slabs jutting out from the shoreline below, pointing toward the hazy, August sky. The cars, buses and trucks are scattered throughout the site, with unknown numbers of late model vehicles submerged under tons of steel and concrete.

It’s a horrifying thing, the collapse of a major bridge. The rumble of death will reverberate here for a long time. This is the stuff of disaster movies, a Jerry Bruckheimer image writ large and real. We’ll live with the consequences of August 1, 2007 for many years.

Still, there is beauty if you look for it. The performance of the first responders was magnificent; the death toll could have easily reached 100, maybe 200 people, but most likely will be far less. The police and fire departments of Minneapolis, so often the well-deserved targets of invective and ridicule for their petty corruption and silly political correctness, performed with grace, professionalism and amazing calm, given the extent of the calamity they found. The paramedics and doctors arriving on the scene were ready, moved quickly, and saved dozens of people. The Red Cross, whose Minneapolis headquarters sits nearby the scene, provided valuable services and comforted the victims and their families. Even the politicians, so often a hindrance rather than a help, performed with grace and restraint, with at least one notable exception, about which more in a moment.

We were far away from the event as it happened, fetching the weekly groceries. We had no idea what had happened and had turned on WCCO radio, more because we noted a line of storms on the western horizon and were looking for a weather update. As we drove home from the store on 35W, about 10 miles north of the site, it became clear that something horrific had happened. The answering machine was already filling with concerned calls from my relatives in Wisconsin. I have crossed the 35W bridge thousands of times in the 15 years I’ve lived in Minnesota and my relatives knew that. It is quite possible that when the list of victims becomes known, I will know someone who was on that bridge at the fateful moment; many of my friends and neighbors use this bridge each day. I hope not, but all of us who live and work in the northern suburbs must prepare for the possibility. All the victims, whether we know them or not, will need our prayers and support.

I am certain that the recriminations will start coming, even before the scene is cleared and the victims identified. It already started last night, as I watched the execrable Elwyn Tinklenberg on KARE television essentially state that the bridge collapsed because the state had not raised the gasoline tax up to a level of his liking. There will be others who will blame Carol Molnau, or Tim Pawlenty. We could just as easily blame Karl Rolvaag or Harold LeVander, the respective governors who presided over the construction of the bridge back in the late 1960s. Neither of them is available for comment at this time.

I hope the recriminations don’t come, though. They are not helpful. What matters now is identifying the victims and comforting their families. What matters next is rebuilding the bridge. We have work to do.

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