SDSU student witnessed tragedy first hand

Ruth Brown

Ruth Brown

Just over one year ago on Aug. 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people.

Kelley Gilliland, a junior nursing major at SDSU, was on her way home to Savage, Minn., a suburb of the cities, from the Hennepin County Medical Center, where she was employed as a receptionist for the summers of 2007 and 2008.

“The next day at HCMC was just chaos; all of the news stations wanted to talk to the doctors,” said Gilliland. “We had to be very careful about confidentiality and dealing with the publicity.”

Gilliland explained that although she did not work in the Emergency Room, she was the receptionist in the office where the doctors’ offices are. It is one of the few parts of HCMC that has their phone number listed. Gilliland said that “lots” of calls from news stations came in for the doctors, and she just kept taking messages.

“The bridge is actually only a few blocks away from HCMC, and we are a level one trauma,” Gilliland said. “So the majority of severely injured people came right to our hospital.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Web site, the bridge was designed in the 1960s, and designers say that there was a metal plate on the bridge that was too thin to serve as a junction of several girders. The bridge survived 40 years, but it gradually gained weight as, among other changes, workers installed concrete structures to separate eastbound and westbound lanes, resulting in strain on the weak point.

The I-35W bridge carried an average of 141,000 travelers a day and had been inspected annually since 1993 by the Federal Highway Administration.

“I was really shocked when I saw the bridge go down on TV with all those people,” said Gilliland. “So many people were trying to make calls that the towers were jammed, and no one could get through.”

Although Gilliland did not see the collapse first hand, she said her friend’s dad saw the bridge collapse in his rearview mirror. He was just coming off the bridge when it went down. Another friend of Gilliland’s was on the bridge when it collapsed but only received minor whiplash.

Throughout the busy week, people did not forget to have compassion. Random people started making calls to HCMC just to thank the doctors at the hospital.

“It was really cool when people started calling to thank the doctors they had seen on TV,” Gilliland said.

Gilliland explained that HCMC had made specific crisis plans ahead of time in case anything like this incident would ever happen. “I think that that really helped them; maybe all hospitals should have something like that,” Gilliland said.

One year later, there is now a memorial in one of the halls of HCMC. It is in honor of the people that died in the collapse, the doctors, nurses, paramedics and everyone who helped clean up the damage.

“It’s definitely a day I know I’ll never forget,” said Gilliland.