MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The playful rivalry between sister cities St. Paul and Minneapolis lay all but forgotten in the face of Aug. 1’s tragic Interstate 35 bridge collapse which severed one of the main arteries between the two communities. In the disaster’s wake, community members pulled together, reacting with both heroism and faith.
The bridge collapse, which occurred during the evening rush hour commute left a confirmed five dead, eight missing and 79 injured. Investigators still don’t know what caused the bridge to collapse.
Mitchell and Judith Hadley live in a condominium just blocks from the bridge. After the collapse, they walked down to the nearby St. Anthony’s stone arch bridge. There Judith overheard snippets of conversations.
“My husband’s late, and I haven’t heard from him”; “I was on that bridge just three hours ago”; “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“It seems as though everyone involved was a hero,” said Judith, particularly noting the heroism of those who responded to a school bus containing 60 children that fell with the bridge.
News reports praised the fast action of 20-year-old Jeremy Hernandez, a gym coordinator with a community center, who jumped over the school bus seats, kicked open the door, and ushered the children off the bus.
“An SUV rear-ended the car just behind the bus, but both drivers went directly to help the kids get to safety,” said Hadley. “One man who saw what happened rushed to help the victims in the water despite unstable debris.”
Minneapolis police sergeant Ed Nelson descended the bridge’s twisted steel girders to reach victims on a concrete slab below.
“Everyone who could be rescued alive was,” added Judith. “It was awesome the way that God poured out his grace on people to enable them to accomplish something larger than they probably ever thought themselves capable of.”
Hadley said that God’s grace was also active in preventing the tragedy from being far worse than it could have been.
“The bridge was being resurfaced so was down to one lane on either side,” Hadley noted. She also commented on the drought that the region has been experiencing as a positive.
“The river level was down, and a severe thunderstorm that was lurking never materialized so that it stayed dry long enough to get done what needed to be done.”
Father Mark Pavlik, pastor of St. Olaf’s Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, was engrossed in prayer, doing spiritual reading about God’s plans for one’s life, when he got a call from a priest friend telling him of the collapse of the bridge just a few blocks away.
After making some calls, the two priests walked down to Hennepin County Medical Center four blocks away to comfort the injured and their families. They were among a cadre of medical staff, social workers, police and chaplains on hand.
“A ministry of presence was our goal,” said Father Pavlik. “We were able to be a living sign of Christ’s saving power in the heart of the city.”
The priests were there too early to be able to minister to any of the victims, but God used them in another way.
“Hospital staff told us, ‘As long as you’re here, there’s someone on the fifth floor who wants to be anointed,’” said Father Pavlik.
Father Pavlik was also involved in setting up one of the archdiocese’s first prayer services.
Twin Prayer Services
The first prayer services offered following the tragedy were twin prayer services held at noon Aug. 2. One was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral; the other at St. Olaf’s in Minneapolis.
Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt presided over the cathedral service, while Father Kevin McDonough, vicar general of the archdiocese, led the service at St. Olaf on behalf of Archbishop Harry Flynn. Hundreds of people attended both services.
“What we really confront in this is our own finiteness,” Archbishop Nienstedt told those gathered in St. Paul. He cited human imperfection as the cause for the collapse, noting that the incident forces people to take a look at their own lives.
“Something like this shatters us,” Archbishop Flynn said. “But as one woman said to me, ‘I don’t know what we’d do without faith.’ It’s the only thing ... to get through something like this.”
In Minneapolis, a Liturgy of the Word prayer service was followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist to accommodate both non-Catholics and Catholics.
“One of the great beauties of St. Olaf’s is that we are an oasis of prayer right downtown,” said Father Pavlik. “At times like this you see that characteristic exemplified. People came down all day to pray.”
Father Pavlik was also on hand to listen.
“We had one parishioner who was near the bridge when it collapsed who wondered why he had been spared,” said Father Pavlik. “A parish staff member helped children from the school bus. A big part of today has been listening, letting people tell you what they are thinking.”
An interfaith prayer service was held Thursday evening at Temple Israel in Minneapolis to honor the victims and rescue workers.
“It was enough to remind you once again of the fragility of life, the fleetingness of it all,” wrote Mitchell Hadley on he and his wife’s blog, Our Word and Welcome to It. “And for those of us of faith, it doesn’t mean that life is meaningless; rather, it reminds us of how packed with meaning every second of life is.”
Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.