Ten years after I-35W bridge collapse, chaplains reflect on helping victims, families

| August 1, 2017 | 0 Comments
I-35W bridge

Ten years ago Aug. 1, the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis as 13 died and 145 sustained injuries. Courtesy/Tom Ruen

On the evening of Aug. 1, 2007, Father Joseph Gillespie was dining with a couple he was preparing for marriage when all three of their cell phones rang at once.

“Somebody had wanted to know if I was alright,” said Father Gillespie, a Dominican priest and pastor of St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis. That’s how he learned the tragic news: The Interstate 35W bridge had collapsed into the Mississippi River during rush hour.

The couple received similar calls. Other cell phones rang throughout the restaurant, Father Gillespie recalled.

Thinking he could be of help, Father Gillespie went to the Hennepin County Medical Center, which has a high-level trauma unit, to assist with victims and their families.

Ten years later, Father Gillespie and former HCMC chaplains Father Jules Omba Omalanga and Deacon Robert Durham have not forgotten that night, as families poured into the downtown Minneapolis hospital searching for their missing loved ones. Thirteen people died in the collapse. Another 145 sustained injuries.

Deacon Durham described the packed hospital as “organized chaos in the most professional way” due to the catastrophic circumstances.

Deacon Durham and his wife, Mary Beth, had been watching the Twins play the Kansas City Royals at the Metrodome — less than a mile from the bridge — during the collapse. He said his wife first noticed hearing a loud boom.

“All of sudden, we could tell something had happened,” said Deacon Durham, who ministers at St. John the Baptist in Savage.

Despite not being scheduled to work at HCMC that evening, Deacon Durham and his wife left the dome immediately and headed to the hospital to help. They spent the evening in the waiting room ministering to people, and he searched for peoples’ loved ones in the hospital.

“People are coming; they don’t know where to go. There’s other hospitals [the victims could be at], and they’re just frantic with fear,” Deacon Durham said, describing the situation. “You’re trying to be that kind of agent to try to help them settle down just the smallest amount and get them some real information.”

Deacon Durham said they had success connecting some families with missing loved ones amid the HCMC’s busy units that night. He also directed families to other hospitals.

The status of many victims remained unknown as rescue workers searched for people at the scene. Many vehicles fell with the bridge when it suddenly collapsed at 6:05 p.m. Other cars sank into the river or had been crushed by falling debris.

Father Omalanga, who had also been in New York City during the September 11 attacks, said he was surprised to hear only 13 died in the bridge collapse. He said he “couldn’t believe” that he was at “those two big events the same day when it happened.”

Father Omalanga had been settling down for dinner at St. Leonard Port Maurice in Minneapolis when he received a call from HCMC. He hurried to the hospital to attend to victims’ families, and he anointed three victims, too.

Father Omalanga continued to meet with families and victims in the weeks following the collapse. He said he offered a listening ear for them and helped with emotional healing and spiritual support, “trying to find God” in their circumstances.

The question of “why God would allow this” came up in those meetings. Father Omalanga said tragedies like the bridge collapse remind people of the shortness of life.

“Death can surprise you wherever you are, no matter what you are doing [or] who you are,” said Father Omalanga, a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Deacon Durham likewise reflected on that question. The deacon said that such tragedies provide an opportunity for a person to grow closer to God or away from God.

“For some it is the realization that my life is fleeting … today really is all that I have and that I should use it … in the greatest possible way that I can to try to make a difference,” Deacon Durham said. “Upon further reflection, people will see that.”

Father Gillespie has seen the importance of moving forward from tragedy. He found that determination in one victim he visited with at Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis.

Mercedes Gordon Rudh had broken both of her legs and her back in the collapse. She had been engaged to be married later that year and still wanted to get married. A year later, she did, and she and her husband, Jake Rudh, now have a 2-year-old daughter, Liv Millikan Rudh. According to KARE 11, they named the child for the firefighter, Jackson Millikan, who save Gordon Rudh’s life.

“As I recall the goal [for Gordon Rudh] was to be able to walk down the aisle,” Father Gillespie said of their visit.

He said she was “somebody who maintained a sense of hope and a dream even in the face of tragedy.”

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