Wednesday marks the 11th anniversary of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and the haunting images were displayed on television screens and newspaper websites worldwide: the school bus packed with kids pinned against a broken guardrail as a nearby semi burned, car after car dangling from broken slabs of concrete and twisted steel, other cars plummeting more than 100 feet to the river below, and smoke billowing into the air.
In a matter of seconds, bridge No. 9340 broke apart during the evening rush hour on Aug. 1, 2007, sending 13 people to their deaths and injuring 145 more.
It’s all still real for Kimberly J. Brown, who was riding in one of the cars on the bridge on her way to a soccer game when she became part of one of the most horrific and tragic events ever to occur on Minnesota roads. This month she is out with a new memoir in which she recounts her brush with death and the nagging guilt she felt afterward, knowing that she survived while other innocent people did not.
“Thirteen people should still be here,” she said in a phone interview.
Titled “The I-35W Bridge Collapse: A Survivor’s Account of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure” (published by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press), the book was 10 years in the making. In 234 pages, she takes readers from her frantic dash to safety after escaping the wreckage through the valley of emotional pain that followed to bouts with post-traumatic stress disorder triggered even years later when crossing bridges or going into parking ramps. The constant fear that bad things would happen.
Amid her firsthand account of survival and recovery, Brown weaves in tales about her quest to learn the real reason the bridge fell. She read countless documents and inspection reports and consulted with bridge experts. She discovered that bent gusset plates and design error, the original reasons given for the collapse, weren’t the full story. Rusted bearings and a failed superstructure contributed to the collapse. In case you don’t know what that means, the IT technical writer boils down the complex subject of bridge construction and their components and presents them in terms that an average citizen can understand.
“The research is a really big part of the book,” said Brown, who is the daughter of former Minnesota Vikings running back Bill “Boom Boom” Brown. “I am hopeful that by understanding the truth, why it fell, we can stop something from happening again. I look forward to having readers know more about why the bridge fell.”
Acting as a whistleblower to point out decaying infrastructure across the state, Brown recounts how she sent letters and photos of other bridges in disrepair to MnDOT, pleading with the agency to fix them. Repairs were later made to a bridge railing in New Ulm and to a pier on I-394 in downtown Minneapolis, and the Cayuga bridge on I-35E in St. Paul was replaced.
“I have no way of knowing [if my letters made a difference], but as a citizen it is the best outcome I could hope for,” Brown wrote. “Maybe I’m enough of a pain in the neck that it’s easier just to fix the bridges. Whatever transpired, my feelings can be summed up in one word. Hallelujah.”
Brown will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Kay Fredericks Ballroom of the Klas Center at Hamline University, 1537 W. Taylor Av., St. Paul.
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