01 August 2008

A year later, bridge collapse shakes foundations of confidence

A year ago today, a bridge crumbled in the August heat, taking with it a bit of our confidence in the system we’ve built over the course of years and take for granted.
I was getting home from work. After changing into work clothes and making my way to the Nordic Track, I was stopped by a phone call from my friend Adam, asking me if I was all right. At first, I was confused; why wouldn’t I be all right? I asked him why, and he told me that the Interstate 35W bridge fell down.
“Which part?” I asked.
“The whole thing,” he replied, sounding oddly fascinated.
My heart sinking, I raced out of the room to flip on the TV. The scene was the same on every channel; footage from helicopter nose cameras showing smoke pouring out of crushed vehicles, dazed survivors being rescued by people unconcerned by tons of tipping concrete and re-bar. The talking heads of the TV news stations babbled over this surreal scene, but their words were not needed. The photos told the whole story – which wasn’t so much about the bridge collapsing as it was about the every day event that had gone horribly wrong that day. Commuting has become a part of American Life, and every time we buckle our seatbelts, we subconsciously assume that our commute is going to be two-way; otherwise, why would we do it? The bridge collapse not only snarled traffic for weeks after the disaster, it punched a hole in the idea of the mind-numbing typicality of a daily commute.
For the survivors, it became a game of “what-ifs.” For the rest of us watching our TV screens, it became a matter of “how many.” In the end, the toll was remarkably light (13 dead) considering how many people had been on the bridge at the time. As with any disaster, response from political leaders was to blame the other party, and use this tragedy in the shameless way most politicians use tragedies. The story spread all across the world; I even recall reading about it in Der Speigel, a German news magazine. There was a very good reason the world found this story so interesting: bridges don’t fall down in America, pure and simple. We’re the most powerful country on the planet, and things like this seem completely impossible for a might eagle built on a foundation of steel and concrete.
The whole thing made me wonder how strong our infrastructure is. Infrastructure is a natural last-choice for funding; people can’t usually see the repairs the way they can a shiny new building. Infrastructure is like bathroom fixtures – so long as everything works, people don’t think about it, or how it all goes together to make modern life possible. The new 35W bridge, built in record time, should be open by September. I’m not sure what I think about this – I almost wonder if the hurried pace of construction will lead to another tragedy down the road. I’m no engineering expert, but common sense would lead me to think that rushing anything, from a batch of brownies to a multi-million dollar bridge, is probably not the smartest idea. I’m hoping time proves me wrong.
All I know is that every time I drive over that new bridge, I’m going to remember the sounds and images of a hot day in August 2007, when our hearts plunged along with a falling span of concrete over the Mississippi River.

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