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Rescuers, and the rescued, found clarity in the chaos

Just doing their job or struggling to survive, it was a time to act after the sudden collapse.

August 03, 2007|Erika Hayasaki and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

MINNEAPOLIS — The river was slick with gasoline, dirty and dark.

Raul Ramos dived in.

There was a car underwater, a woman in the driver's seat. Ramos could see rough chunks of concrete and a tangle of metal rods jutting up at odd angles, treacherous in the murk. A slight current pushed at him. He swam.

Above, the steamy summer night was full of noise and motion and acrid smells. Firefighters were wrenching open car doors with pry bars and attacking rubble with circular saws.

Ramos reached the car. He yanked open the door, cut the woman from her seat belt and kicked to the surface, cradling her across his chest. The police officer holding Ramos' tether pulled them to what passed for safety, a stable piece of wreckage near the bank of the Mississippi River.

Ramos can't say what became of the woman. It is not his job to linger.

Neither was it his job to stop and think, or recoil in fear. Not until he got home Thursday morning did Ramos reflect on the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, Minneapolis' main artery across the Mississippi. The eight-lane bridge plunged into the river during the evening rush hour Wednesday. Four people have been confirmed dead, but up to 20 cars remain underwater, and authorities expect the death toll to rise.

Ramos and his crew from Minneapolis Fire Department Rescue 9 had been about to sit down to dinner at the station when the call came at about 6 p.m.: Bridge down. "We were like, 'What?' " Ramos said.

Minutes later, they knew.

Arriving at the north side of the bridge, Ramos scrambled up a section of the highway that had been ripped off in the collapse and now pointed straight up, toward the sunset. From his perch, he could see people everywhere -- it seemed like hundreds. Some lay motionless; most were working deliberately, steadily, in striking silence, helping bloodied strangers to safety.

"It was almost like they were still in shock," said Ramos, 35. "I don't think they could believe what had happened. I know I couldn't."

Then he saw the car in the water, and Ramos ran for his dive gear.


UP on what was left of the bridge, Julie Graves was upside down.

Moments earlier, the camp counselor had been riding on the front seat of a yellow bus taking 60 children home from a trip to the pool.

The ground gave way.

Her stomach lurched; she was in free fall; then she tumbled out of her seat and crashed down the short steps at the front of the bus. Her body had been flipped somehow; her ankles were shattered, and she was balancing on her hands.

The driver, badly injured, yelled at her to turn off the ignition. The bus had wedged against a guardrail, but the engine was still running. Graves, 28, righted herself and tried to stand. It hurt too much. She stretched an arm out, reaching for the key, reaching until she finally grasped it.

In the back of the bus, a young man, Jeremy Hernandez, was helping the children jump out of the exit to safety.

Graves slumped in the stairwell. The bus had tilted sideways; it looked to Graves as though it might topple into the river at any moment. A fire raged in a nearby semi-trailer, sending out thick clouds of smoke. Graves could not move. When she tried to stand, she collapsed. Her orange shirt was streaked with blood.

Long moments later, Hernandez made his way to the front of the bus and scooped Graves into his arms. Bones in her feet and back were fractured. Shards of glass were embedded in numerous cuts.

As Graves was being loaded into an ambulance, her fiance, Brendan Kelly, ran up. A fellow counselor had reached him by text message, and he had rushed to the bridge. Kelly put his hand on Graves' cheek. "I'm here, baby," he said. She sobbed.


HIS first day on the job, 13 years ago, Tim Dziedzic heard a firefighting motto:

Risk little to save little. Risk a lot to save a lot.

He couldn't stop thinking of that Thursday. "Last night," he said, "we risked everything."

Dziedzic, 39, drives the Rescue 9 rig for the B shift out of Station 11. They were on the scene within minutes. "I'll be honest with you," he said, "it was a little scary."

Sections of the collapsed bridge remained elevated -- stretches of roadway balanced atop the shifting rubble. Dziedzic studied the chaos warily. Those chunks could come crashing down at any moment. The entire scene was an obstacle course of hazards: shattered glass and knife-sharp metal, rebar, concrete and so many cars -- cars tipped on their sides, cars flipped upside down, cars flung on top of others.

Other mottos Dziedzic learned way back when: Don't become part of the problem. Don't put your crew in danger. "That went out the window last night," he said.

"You had to get over the shock and remember why you were there. To help people. To do your work. You had to remind yourself, you're a firefighter."

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