J. Jacqueline McLean
With victims trapped in vehicles, recovery workers are stymied by the current and mounds of debris. Victims’ families get news of the worst kind: We called and called and called and called. She didn’t pick up. – The Star Tribune, August 8, 2007
Eventually what goes up, comes down. Infrastructure included.
Months before the fifth busiest bridge in Minnesota tumbled into the Mississippi River, I saw the fragile and duct-tape useless condition of dozens of bridges in the Twin Cities. The tricky part: Getting my television bosses to listen. Here’s the ugly truth. No one cares about bad bridges, aging sewer systems, neglected roads, sunken pot holes, until the boom happens. Boom! An upstanding bridge collapsed like an accordion on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people, injuring 145.
This is my backstory behind the I-35W bridge disaster, something few reporters would dare write about. I’ve had ten years to build up the courage.
Watching an interstate of bumper-to-bumper cars suddenly plunge into the mighty Mississippi changed my reporting tactics. Ended my chase for sensational, promotable stories like dirty public bathrooms, germ-infected hotel water glasses. Made me hunt for meaningful and serious issues. Turn down the volume on the big bang (the exclusive video, the outrage, the winning game in TV news).
In the summer of 2006, hundreds of Minnesota’s country bridges were crying for help; county engineers were running out of bandages; patchwork-strong, sturdy, safe bridges were in disrepair. Reliable voices wanted to be heard. The photographer turned on the camera. I listened. There were no other reporters.
In our search for bad bridges, my photojournalist partner, Troy, and I took in scenery only small towns hold.
“Pretty and peaceful, isn’t it, Troy?”
“Yeah. I could live out here, easily.”
“Not me. It’s nice passing through. But I am way too much of a city girl for all this farm land.”
Troy and I talked about a little of everything and a little of nothing on the long ride to the middle of nowhere. Our game plan: shoot all the bridges first, interviews last.
En route to southern Minnesota, we passed a couple of storybook downtown districts with historic Main Streets. Old fashioned storefronts. Silos. Hay stacks. Horses roaming free on the well-fed interstate grass. Old American territory—1950s flashback. Troy’s camera captured it all.
Thirty minutes in or so, not one department store chain, nor bridge did we see.
Troy said, “These small town bridges don’t look like city bridges. We probably crossed over one or maybe several and didn’t even know it.”
Oh no! How do I explain a story about bridges without a bridge? To justify a road trip outside of the city skyline, I had promised an investigation that wouldn’t disappoint. I had pitched every defense line I could. People would want to know if the bridge they were driving over was caving in.
“Too boring,” said one manager. “Let’s wait for something to happen,” said another.
Here’s the problem. Bridges aren’t sexy or consumer-savvy. The news business has to pay bills too. My previous investigation on dishonest parking lots pushed the newscast ratings to the top, appealing to the most sought-after demographic market for advertisers.
Finally, after months of pleading, I got the green light on the bridge story. It came with limitations, though.
“Keep it short. Don’t waste a lot of time on this,” warned the investigative executive producer.
Disturbing facts didn’t matter. The Promotions Department wanted collapsing bridges. Minus any boom, a solid news story affecting every motorist and passenger in Minneapolis was buried in the newscast.
Twelve months later, our report proved an infrastructure crisis existed throughout Minnesota. During our small-town hike over several bridge crossings, Troy and I videotaped plenty. Bridges shook when cars went across. Missing pieces resembled broken logs floating in small ponds. Rust. Corrosion. Fallen concrete. Cracks. Hazardous conditions.
Troy shot pictures of the deteriorating bridges from different angles. His mic stayed on, picking up the sounds surrounding every hurting span. Traffic, birds, car horns. The gusting wind brushing off tiny lakes. Big city television viewers could see and hear the scenery.
“Hey! What if this monster semi going over this draw bridge doesn’t make it?” Troy said, grinning at me.
No such exclusive happened. Nothing gotcha, no undercover gem. Real news and good TV has to be pursued. A lesson the 35W taught me.
Before the control room cued our story, the first picture on television sets in the thousands of homes watching that night was a full-blown colorful banner placed on every investigative story. A plain, free-flowing mix of bright orange and red colors. It read: Cross With Caution. Our story was told one year before the death of bridge 9340, the official name for the 35W.
This is the script of the first story that aired in the Twin Cities television market exposing the hidden danger beneath Minnesota’s bridges:
It is late fall. Flowers are still in bloom. The lakes and rivers are gently flowing in southeast Minnesota. We’re three hours outside the Twin Cities.
Southern Minnesota is known for its rural beauty and aging bridges.
(natural sound/traffic over bridge)
Some, like this one, were built before World War II. But now they are too fragile, too narrow. We talk to county highway engineers in Winona, Fillmore, Mower. Their bridge problems are what you’ll find statewide.
Winona county engineer David Rholl told us: “We should be replacing three bridges a year.”
Engineer Michael Hanson of Mower county said: “I hope there are no wakeup calls.”
Gilmore county engineer John Grindeland said: “We’re going to pay in the end if we don’t pay now.”
There are 19,755 bridges in the state.
The majority are in rural counties and townships, where engineers are now seriously thinking of closing bridges too expensive to repair. Too costly to replace.
David Rholl is the county engineer in Winona. He shows us this bridge on Highway 39. “The worst, it could collapse.” The top of the bridge that drivers see looks just fine. But Rholl says: “It’s getting serious. The concrete is falling off.”
Underneath, it is rusting. Concrete is missing. It will take $600,000 to fix.
It is nothing compared to this bridge. Which has no guard rails. Rholl says: “It’s not a safe bridge.”
In Mower County, state records show 117 bridges are in rough shape. Engineer Mike Hanson says: “You can see some of the bad spots.”
Wooden bridges, like this, are starting to rot. This one, and this one, are showing cracks. Hanson says repairs need to be made soon. “It’s just falling apart on the edge there. It’s only a matter of time.”
County bridges also take a beating from 98,000 pound trucks, which are legally too heavy to be on the interstate. Yet they are allowed on county bridges. And farmers sneak heavy equipment across bridges barely strong enough for two pickup trucks.
John Grindeland says: “Hopefully most of them will make it across. It’s the one time that it may not.”
Grindeland is the county engineer in Fillmore. His county alone has 174 bridges that are deficient or obsolete. 174 bridges that are structurally unsound. Or do not meet modern standards. But are still in use.
Assistant Fillmore county engineer Tom Miles says: “The whole bridge moves when you wiggle this piece, not just the railing.”
That’s right. The bridge moves. With or without cars.
(natural sound/rail shaking)
Miles walks on a deficient bridge where rust is literally eating away at the metal. This bridge is almost 100 years old. Two poles are keeping the bridge from falling. If either one of them fails, the bridge collapses. Older bridges are simply starting to show their age. Miles says: “This portion of the beam all along the way there is gone from the 2nd beam on.”
According to state records, there are almost 2,500 deficient and obsolete bridges. 328 are in the Twin Cities.
For seven years, Steve Carlson has driven by the bridge over Highway 36 and Rice in St Paul. The state says it is “functionally obsolete.” But safe. How can that be, asks Carlson: “You can see where it’s falling apart. There’s rust and chunks of concrete gone.”
Carlson says: “One of these days it’s going to collapse and somebody’s going to get hurt.”
The number of closed bridges statewide totals only 44. Closing a bridge is a last option. Instead, the engineers we talked to, say counties take the band-aid approach.
“You lower the limits. You’re restricting truck traffic.”
“You might get 100 overweight trucks over it. But the 101st may not make it and it may go without warning.”
Fourteen bridges in the state are posted with warning signs. The danger, say county engineers, is that too many restricted bridges can’t support emergency vehicles.
“A fire truck would be overweight on this bridge.”
“We can’t even get our own plow trucks over the bridges.”
We sat down with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) to find out why MNDOT would jeopardize public safety by not repairing or replacing bridges that can’t handle emergency trucks or school buses.
MNDOT engineer Julie Skallman told us: “It certainly is a concern. We don’t think we’re jeopardizing safety here, no.”
Skallman says it all comes down to money. There isn’t enough. Last year, 87 counties had to split 40 million dollars in bond money. Another source of revenue is the gas tax. The last increase was three cents in 1988. And the governor said NO to an increase that lawmakers okayed last year.
Bridges are routinely inspected. The problem is there are so many getting old at the same time. The state fixes one. Another deficient one takes its place.
Carol Lovro is with the Association of Minnesota Counties: “We’re going to go to the legislature this year and ask for 100 million dollars.”
She says it will take millions more to bring all the bridges up to standard.
“I don’t think in my lifetime we will ever catch up. Hopefully, the legislature will see the light someday.”
County engineers say we have ignored the infrastructure of our bridges and roads too long. While no one wants to point the blame, limited funding is now the reality.
Jacqueline McLean reporting.
The investigative report Cross With Caution aired during the November 2006 ratings period—when the news department showcases its best stories to pull in advertisers.
Investigative units are forced to come out of their fox holes four times a year after weeks of digging up stories that should support why they are deserving of these diva reporting jobs—similar to sitting on a velvet chair perched on top of the Empire State building—cushy and an enviable view—yet can tip over at any second. Mine swayed when the 35W ripped like paper. The lack of a thorough investigation was a disservice to journalism, viewers, and quite possibly, public safety. I was assigned to more tantalizing, but weaker stories. Holding government accountable should always take priority.
The 35W was too well-traveled, too important not to dig deeper. There is power in investigative reporting. Who knows if covering it fully would have made a difference?
I finally obtained the 35W inspection papers the day after the collapse. I asked an engineering professor at the University of St. Thomas to look them over and explain how an interstate bridge could drown. He told us, “Major repairs should have been done. The issue of fatigue, missing bolts, rust problems was pretty pandemic throughout the bridge.”
More importantly, he clarified how the design flaw was a catastrophe waiting to happen. The report showed one metal plate was in critical shape. Engineering professor John Abraham said all it took was for that one metal plate to fail and “the entire bridge would collapse.”
“If you press on something over and over and then all of a sudden it catastrophically fails, that’s fatigue,” Abraham said. The 35W was a tired, unhealthy 40-year-old. It had gotten regular checkups, but the most annoying and life-threatening injuries went untreated.
August 1, 2007 was a hot, muggy summer evening. A baseball night. Unmemorable. Until the shaking started. Rush hour. One-hundred cars sitting in stop and go traffic on the 35W. When the shaking ended, 88 cars were trapped in the fifteen-foot deep Mississippi River.
Heavyweight vehicles (trucks, school buses, fire engines, plow trucks) travel on country bridges. If these small crossings take this kind of beating, imagine a day in the life of the 35W. I asked a math guru to add up the numbers in order to paint a vivid picture of the wear and tear the 35W endured in its lifetime. For forty years, every day, 140,000 vehicles trekked across its body.
“Length-wise, that’s equivalent to circling the earth 49,251 times,” said Chicago biologist Alicia Wilson-Thomas.
When I suggested looking into the health of the state’s bridges, I didn’t see the charred bakery truck dangling between two pieces of concrete or bursting into flames. The man in the wheelchair stuck in his handicapped van. Or the young mother and her two-year-old daughter who died. I saw a good ratings story. If my report forced MNDOT to change any regulations or practices, the news director would waste no time in getting a proof of performance promo on the air.
I was not on the scene on the night of the disaster. I did anchor reports in the studio, rehashing my bridge data. We replayed portions of Cross With Caution. I was glad, sad and furious to realize Troy and I had gotten it right. Bridges were not boring television.
When I was finally off-air, I sat in the edit bay as the live pictures from the catastrophic failure were fed into the newsroom. The control room was hectic. I could hear the horror from the director juggling the live newscast:
I need a reporter to find a victim.
Come on field crews. We’re live on the air. Somebody talk to me.
Who’s ready next?
Fade to commercial. We’re back in five everyone.
During breaking news, there’s little time to think. When I did, I knew I should have looked at the city bridges; pushed more; gone beyond the call of duty.
In the days following this grief of historic proportion, I filed a number of reports looking at how a design flaw four decades old could take 13 lives and hurt 145 people.
A city engineer for St. Paul summed up the nightmare of August 1 by putting the past in the rearview mirror.
“What we’re leaving our kids is this infrastructure and if we’re not maintaining it, we’re leaving them a heck of a responsibility in the future,” said John Maczko.
That fatal night didn’t end for me until one the next morning. Driving home, I couldn’t find any music to listen to. The 35W had taken over the radio.
“You’re doing 80 miles an hour,” said the middle-aged policeman who stopped me. I didn’t know how long the loud, red, twirling siren followed me.
Leaning in the car, the cop said, “Busy night for you guys, huh?”
“Yes, sir.” I said. “I was lucky to be able to leave the newsroom when I did.”
“Slow it down and get home safely. I’ll let you go this time. It’s a sad night for our city tonight.”
I pulled away slowly. For a few minutes, I felt good about my career and grateful for the on-air perk of being recognized.
Hopefully we’ve all learned a lot from this sad night. The 35W couldn’t yell, Catch me, I’m falling. But its horrific collapse showed why bridges should matter.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Chicago, J. Jacqueline McLean is a Southern city girl at heart. She has spent more than twenty-five years in the news business, both as an anchor and an investigative reporter. Her reporting has been honored with eight Emmy awards and the prestigious Edward R. Murrow for investigative reporting. She has had the pleasure of working in a dozen TV markets, including Honolulu. Her writings have appeared in Hawaii Review and Rock, Paper, Scissors. She received an MFA in writing from Hamline University in May 2017. Becoming a writer is a lifelong dream. When not writing, she is usually taking pictures and traveling as often as she can.
Eva Quintos Tennant is a writer and photographer based in D.C./Baltimore. When she’s not behind the lens capturing life around her, she is working to complete an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore.