Workers Remember the I-35W Bridge Collapse, Fight for Change

Dan Schueller was just 18 seconds away from bicycling under the 35W bridge when he heard a humungous crack.

I looked up, and I saw this big white cloud coming toward me,” says Schueller, who was following his usual route home from work at the Met Council. At first, he thought the lock and dam had broken down.

Then all of a sudden the cloud hit me. I kind of breathed it in – it was cement dust. The whole street and bike trail were just covered in cement. I looked down and saw the bridge in the river. My first thought was, Wow, is somebody filming a movie? I couldn’t grasp what was going on.

“The worst part was the sound,” Schueller recalls. “I didn’t hear one person scream, but I heard all this moaning, like hundreds of people moaning in pain. It just kind of echoed across the river. I knew this wasn’t something good.”

Dan Schueller jumped off his bike to pull people from their cars and get them safely off the bridge. By coincidence, he later met one of the women he saved at a wedding. She and her husband thanked him for his actions.
IB Image

The I-35W bridge that spanned the Mississippi River had just collapsed, falling like dominoes into the water. Cars and trucks were tossed about like toys. Rebar sprouted and twisted from the broken concrete slabs like a tangled plate of spaghetti.

The collapse killed 13 people and injured 145 more, many of them in serious and life-changing ways. That tragedy – 10 years ago today caused our state and nation to reexamine the crucial role of strong and safe infrastructure, and evaluate how far we’d strayed from maintaining that ideal.

“It brought a lot of things that AFSCME and MnDOT had been saying about the need for funding into stark focus,” says Mike Hartel, an AFSCME Local 2792 steward at the time. “There was a bit more funding for bridges, a little more manpower. It wasn’t nearly what we needed, but it was a small step up.”

The collapse resulted in additional funding of about $2.5 billion over 10 years to replace and repair Minnesota bridges that were in critical need. A Star Tribune analysis shows the state has repaired or replaced about 120 bridges over the past decade. Minnesota now has one of the lowest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the nation,” the Tribune found.

AFSCME Council 5 members were there to push for maintenance and inspection funding at every step of the way. They fought maintenance and inspection cutbacks long before the crisis hit; saved people on the fallen bridge; and continue to fight today for increased funding, even as some state legislators start to forget the lessons of the recent past.

‘I Just Went into Action’

The day of the bridge collapse, Dan Schueller headed right into the destruction.

“I went down the river bank,” he recalls. I found a steep edge of the cement. I climbed up onto it. Nobody was even out of their cars yet.”

Schueller went to several vehicles and opened the car doors.

“The drivers were all in shock,he recalls. “Their hands were still on the steering wheel. They were just staring forward. I started talking to them. They didn’t hear me. It wasn’t until I said that I just came off the bank and can show you how to get off that they would snap to it. I led them to the edge and showed them how to crab-walk down the steep section.”

That evening, Schueller helped several women escape, all the while fearing the bridge would collapse even more.

“I was just thinking of these people, rushing to get them out and off in case the bridge shifted,” he says. “It looked precarious. I didn’t think too many conscious thoughts. I just went into action.”

Schueller heard the sound of crying children somewhere out of sight; he later realized it was a school bus across the median. He saw a man trying to prevent his teetering pickup truck from going over the edge by holding onto the door, then saw the truck fall into the void and explode.

He didn’t leave until rescue workers arrived.

All Hands on Deck

Numerous other AFSCME members jumped in to help. They answered 911 calls, dispatched first responders, provided American Red Cross blood services and controlled crowds. Members like Probation Officer Deanne Schultz of Local 552 were on the scene, giving first aid. Tony Kilpela of Local 695 led a team that provided psychological first aid to workers pulling bodies from the river.

Mike Hartel, Dennis Hill, Darl Schossow and Darren Trast were among the MnDOT workers who diverted traffic after the collapse, and helped ensure the new bridge would be safe.
IB Image

At MnDOT, it was all hands on deck.

Mike Hartel was on the night crew. He didn’t learn about the bridge until he was on his way into work.

“I think I was 24 at the time,” he says. “I didn’t know how to feel. I was shocked. All I knew was a bridge had fallen. It was before smartphones. I didn’t even see an image until the next day.”

Hartel, who has since been promoted to transportation operations supervisor, stayed at the ramp from I-94 to I-35 all night long, closing it to traffic.

Months later, when the replacement bridge was set to open, several truck stations helped test it. They sent eight big plow trucks up and down the bridge at different speeds to test vibration sensors, he says.

Hartel helped the night that new bridge opened, too. He was among the crews who blocked the ramps leading to the bridge, allowing survivors and first responders to make a ceremonial procession before the new bridge opened to the public.

‘Deafening Silence’

The day after the bridge collapse, Local 221 member Darren Trast was part of a team tasked with finding a collapsed storm sewer, looking at manholes and assessing damage under the bridge. There was no way to get down below.

“We walked out there,” Trast recalls. “The road noise that would usually be going on – it was deafening silence. There were still bodies in the water that they couldn’t find. It was a mangled mess, twisted kind of like a tornado had ripped through it.”

Trast spent the next couple of weekends helping shut down Highway 280 and converting it from a secondary highway into something that could handle traffic diverted from I-35. He was part of the drainage crew that opened and inspected every storm sewer, flushed out more than half the pipes, and worked with maintenance to patch storm sewers in need of repair.

“We had to get the road up to speed to where it would handle traffic and all the proper essentials would be working, drainage and signage,” says Trast, a former president of his local.

Workers also converted shoulders on I-94 into traffic lanes to help handle the massive amount of autos heading downtown that no longer had I-35 as an option.

For decades before the bridge collapse, Trast was among numerous AFSCME members who fought hard to bring attention to the need for more maintenance and inspection funding. They testified before the Legislature. They battled when former Gov. Jesse Ventura cut car license tab fees and when Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a gas tax increase.

“We told them, if you don’t maintain the system you’ve got, it’s going to fall apart,” says retired AFSCME state director Bob Hilliker, who was Council 5’s MnDOT liaison at the time. “They were cutting back and cutting back.”

MnDOT went from 5,400 AFSCME employees in the 1960s to just 2,800 in 2010, he says.

AFSCME field director Bart Andersen, who was Local 2792 president then, says MnDOT had cut the size of its bridge crews. He says inspectors had been writing reports for years trying to call attention to issues like missing rivets and bad gusset plates.

Right before the collapse, a contractor had loaded tons of construction materials on the bridge without testing it for weight – found to be a factor in the collapse and had cut holes all the way through the deck, Hilliker says.

It was destined to happen, the way they had it set up knowing it wasn’t a good bridge,” Hilliker says.

Blowing the Whistle

After the collapse, Andersen, Hilliker and AFSCME members redoubled their efforts. They met with MnDOT locals across the state to push for a hike in the gas tax and license tab fee for new vehicles. Members put up lawn signs and bumper stickers. They talked to neighbors, community members and mayors.

“They think every tax is a bad tax,” Hilliker says. “The Republicans have preached that for 30 years. If they understood where the money was spent, I think 70 percent of the public would support it. You need good roads, good bridges.”

Bart Andersen testified before Congress that the state's transportation system was "broken."
IB Image

Andersen served as a whistleblower, testifying before Congress that the state’s transportation system was “broken” and urging legislators to support a new national program to maintain and inspect bridges.Our two biggest problems are the lack of staff and the lack of funds to do bridge work,” he testified.

Andersen also led lawmakers and media here on a Scary Bridge Tour, showing them the Lafayette and Hastings bridges. One was in such bad shape, it had chunks of concrete falling off it; the other had steel girders so rusty, you could put a fist through them.

Bart Andersen showed lawmakers and the media rusted out spots on the Hastings Bridge as part of the Scary Bridge Tour.
IB Image

Repeating the Mistakes of the Past?

In early 2008, legislators defeated Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase. Then AFSCME members helped pass the Taxpayers’ Transportation Accountability Act, so MnDOT would have to compare how much larger projects would cost to privatize than do internally.

While the state’s 10-year, $2.5 billion investment has repaired or replaced dozens of bridges, AFSCME members fear the state is backsliding on maintenance once again. Last session, the GOP rejected measures to create a funding stream to ensure continuous money for maintenance; instead, lawmakers approved a one-time increase that steals from the General Fund.

That’s frustrating for our heroic members like Dan Schueller, who saved lives on the bridge that day, and those who work on our roads and bridges now to save lives in the future.

The day of the tragedy, Schueller was running late from work. The only thing that saved his life was a shiny object on the ground that he spotted and stopped to examine; it was a skull and crossbones ring.

He timed it later, and picking up that ring took 20 seconds, just long enough to avoid being under the bridge when it went down.

I’ve always thought its just ridiculous how low the gas tax is,” Schueller says. “If that was even close to an appropriate number, so much could be fixed. That’s the thing that’s really bothered me over the years. It’s an obvious source. A user fee is perfect for the situation. But somehow, we cant muster the political will to get it done.”