The remains of the I-35W bridge as seen from the north side of the Mississippi River and looking towards the west bank of the University of Minnesota campus.
If you've ever spent any time in the Twin Cities, you've likely driven on I-35W, underneath it, over it or next to it.
Before it collapsed on Wednesday afternoon, the 35W bridge (nobody really uses the I) was the less impressive of a pair of bridges spanning the Mississippi within a few hundred yards of each other near the University of Minnesota campus. The 10th Ave. bridge, with its dramatic arches was much more aesthetically pleasing, but 35W was the work horse. In a metro area that is increasingly sprawling, 35W is the conduit running from northeast to southwest, delivering people to and from school and work and even the Mall of America every day, and its bridge was one of only a handful spanning the river in the city limits. Estimates say 140,000 vehicles crossed it daily.
Closer to home, or at least the home where I grew up in the southwest Minneapolis suburbs, 35W and the portion of it that crossed the Mississippi was the route I used to visit the U (that's how everyone in Minnesota refers to the University), the bars and coffeehouses of Northeast Minneapolis and even vacation destinations "up north" beyond Duluth. Saturdays spent at Gopher hockey games or working through a stack of pancakes at Al's Breakfast required a drive over the 35W bridge which allowed for a spectacular view of the river and even a glimpse of the Weisman Art Museum, designed by architect Frank Gehry.
I watched a video stream of WCCO's coverage of the collapse live from the Twin Cities on a computer in my living room Wednesday night after checking in with my parents and sister's family. The station's longtime anchor Don Shelby's voice accompanied pictures from the scene as it did for nearly every big story we ever watched on TV in my house growing up. It was impossible not to pick out my hometown's landmarks as they popped up in shots taken from a news helicopter.
But what was not at all familiar were the shots of the bridge itself, laying in the water and draped on the steep banks of the river like a ribbon. This was a bridge I had crossed dozens if not hundreds of times in my life, never considering for a second that it would ever fall apart. It was like Chicago's Lakeshore Drive, Milwaukee's Marquette Interchange, New York's Holland Tunnel or San Francisco's Bay Bridge. Life in the Twin Cities included complaining about congestion on it or trying to figure out routes that avoided the thing, but few could have pictured life without it.
There is certainly a lot of sadness among Minnesota natives today for those who are suffering through this horrible episode. But if my circle of friends and family are any indication, a feeling of disbelief is also significant. Forty-year old bridges built to last 70 aren't supposed to collapse.
City Pages, the alternative weekly in the Twin Cities, shares the stories from some survivors on its blog this morning. Obviously, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press have more reporting. For more of a citizen's take, check MNSpeak.com or the Minnesota Monitor. There is also ongoing conversation about the disaster on TDPF.