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WASHINGTON -- Matthew Miller had his back to the I-35W bridge the instant it buckled and collapsed into the Mississippi River bluff just yards behind him.

When the 21-year-old construction worker turned and saw what happened, he hardly had time to think -- other than to say a quick, silent prayer.

But over the next four hours, authorities say, he helped save at least eight survivors, including fellow workers and a Savage family of four that rode the bridge down in horror.

"I just followed the screams," Miller said. "I knew there were cars down at the bottom."

Miller's feat, although acknowledged by Minneapolis police, came to public light only last week, when the Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced that he is a finalist for its first Above & Beyond Citizen Honors for unsung heroes.

The award, to be presented by retired Gen. Colin Powell on March 25, would be the first national recognition for any rescuer in the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, which took the lives of 13 people. Among those who died: Miller's co-worker Greg Jolstad, who had been joking with him hours before.

"I'm not really a big hero. I don't need to have that label," said Miller, a senior at Bethel University in Arden Hills.

Plenty of the uninjured workers in Miller's crew jumped into the fray in the first chaotic moments after the bridge collapse. Miller, now 22, gives them as much credit as anyone. But he was singled out by Tom Sloan, a vice president at Progressive Contractors Inc., the company that had the resurfacing contract on the bridge.

"Matt's name came up more than anybody's," Sloan told officials at Bethel, which nominated Miller for the national award last fall.

Miller sought no awards or credit, said Sherie Lindvall, vice president for communications at Bethel. "He's a very quiet, unassuming person.''

From chaos to panic

It was just before 6 p.m. on a blistering hot day on the job, and some of the crew had some downtime before heading back out on the bridge.

"I didn't hear anything," Miller said. "You've got to keep in mind there's heavy equipment running, jack hammers going, semis carrying stuff. Plus, you've got ear-plugs in. ... My back was turned to the bridge."

"I looked at the traffic stop, and then I noticed that a female in a car was kind of freaking out. She was waving her hands. I thought she was crazy. Then she rolled down her window and said the cars were 'bouncing.' I said, 'Bouncing, what are you talking about?'"

Miller turned -- and saw nothing, except dust and smoke.

"After about a minute, I realized there was no more bridge. So then I went from chaos mode to panic."

Miller worked his way down into the river gorge, across train tracks and woods, to where a huge canopy of highway was resting at a sharp angle.

He jumped down an 8-foot embankment, grabbing a tree branch to break his fall.

"There were screams, blood, everything was down there. ... I didn't even know where the heck I was running. I just kept on running."

Prayer, then heroism

Then he got to the place he calls Ground Zero. "There was eight lanes of concrete hanging 15 feet above me."

In an instant, he found himself praying. "I said, 'God, help me not to focus on that piece of concrete, that piece of highway hanging above my head.' From there, I didn't look up."

Miller started getting people out of cars that had come crashing down with the bridge. "Everybody that I helped was alive, though more than one with their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads," he said.

Among the first people Miller found was a woman trapped in a car upside down. He crawled into the car and ripped out the head rests so she could be pulled out through the back seat.

Strangely, she was calm. "She was very uncomfortable, I could tell," Miller said. "But she was more calm than I was."

More haunting was the crushed minivan carrying the Coulter family -- mom, dad and two teenage daughters from Savage.

"I couldn't tell it was a mini- van because it was crushed. I thought it was a sedan," Miller said.

He found one of the girls standing by the wreck, in shock, under the sloping concrete. "I told her we've got to get moving. It's either I pick you up or I'll help you walk. She wouldn't move. She was scared. I ended up picking her up."

A co-worker helped the other injured girl.

They were able to help the father walk through the rubble and concrete, supporting him with his arms over their shoulders, like an injured football player.

"He wasn't responding to anybody," Miller recalled. "He wasn't making any noise. And for him not to respond to his daughters screaming, I knew something was wrong."

By the time they got to the mother, who appeared to be the most badly injured, they had found plywood to use as a makeshift stretcher to carry her and others to waiting ambulances. Some were loaded into the back of a company truck that was pressed into service.

Miller would later splash into the water to help land boats that were coming in from the river, carrying victims, rescuers and other construction workers.

"My adrenaline was pumping," said Miller, who soon began having nightmares about the bridge collapse. "I didn't stop and think. That was up to the Lord. I lifted some people I know I couldn't lift now. I just reacted."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753