his story was named a National Winner in the Feature category of the 2008 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.

M.A. senior recalls sisters’ survival of I-35W bridge collapse

Note: This story was named a National Winner in the Feature category of the 2008 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.

Published Oct. 5, 2007

By Lauren Ehlers

On the evening of August 1, 2007, senior CJ Leonard was sitting on the curb outside her church after a long day of teaching Vacation Bible School, waiting for her mom to pick her up. Her mom was at the Waite House, a neighborhood center in South Minneapolis, waiting for Leonard’s two younger sisters, whose bus had not yet returned from a field trip. Leonard decided to go to a nearby coffee shop, and as she walked, her phone rang. It was her mother, calling to say that the 35W bridge had collapsed and that the bus carrying Leonard’s sisters was on it.

“My heart just stopped beating,” said Leonard. “Hearing those words, that the bridge had collapsed … I was in doubt and denial. I didn’t want to believe it.”

No one wanted to believe it. Minnesotans – and people all across the country – were shocked when the 35W bridge fell, leaving 13 people dead and about 100 injured. The disaster has slowed travel and called attention to the condition of other U.S. bridges, but it has also deeply affected the lives of people like Leonard and her two 11-year-old sisters, Mary-Juanita and Randi-Lynn.

“This might sound kind of strange, but you know how on college applications they always tell you to write about stuff that really changed your life?” said Leonard. “Well, before I didn’t really have anything, and now all of I sudden I have so much. It’s weird how fast things can happen.”

After receiving the phone call, Leonard went into the closest gas station. The radio was on, and reporters were attempting to put the pieces of the story together. A neighbor brought Leonard home, where she turned on the television to watch the news.

“I checked the TV to see if the bus had made it across the bridge,” she said. “When I saw the images, I couldn’t believe it. I had goose bumps all over. I was in a state of shock.”

Meanwhile, Leonard’s mom was at the Red Cross, trying to locate her daughters.

“The kids were kept in a closed-off room with no windows,” said Leonard. “My mom had to go through all this security and give her official identification and describe my sisters to get to them.”

It was three and a half hours before they arrived home.

“I was out on the front steps,” Leonard said. “My mom and sisters pulled up, and they weren’t crying and I didn’t cry, but I was so happy to see them. It was a huge relief.”

But the emotional day wasn’t over yet.

“We did an interview at WCCO at midnight,” Leonard said. “We got a tour of the studio, and we didn’t leave until three in the morning.”

After the interview, Leonard and her mom and sisters viewed the site of the collapse.

“We went across one of the other bridges and looked at the wreckage,” Leonard said. “It was straight out of a horror film – big bright lights, lots of dust. It did not look real at all.”

But the tragedy’s impact on Leonard’s life is real, and it has called her attention to other bridges that may need repair.

“These are bridges people cross everyday, sometimes more than once a day,” she said. “People need to feel reassured that what they’re traveling on is going to keep them up.”

More than anything, though, Leonard is thankful for her sisters’ safety, a miracle that has helped her faith grow.

“I just think of the milliseconds between living and dying, how the bus didn’t tip and how it landed on all four wheels,” she said. “You can’t look at that and not see God.”

Where were you when the bridge collapsed?

Every generation experiences events that profoundly impact lives for years to come. Whether or not you were directly affected by the 35W bridge collapse, you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news of the disaster. Here, MA students and faculty share their memories.

“I was at home. [Freshman] Annie Wright was over at my house. My family’s friends from Rochester called to see if we were okay, and then Annie and I hopped on our bikes and rode to see the bridge.”

– Ava Heinrich (9)

“I was at a picnic for the Japanese Exchange Program. My parents were running it, and they had to make sure everyone was accounted for, that people were off the bridge.”

– Celeste Norlander (11)

“I was in Colorado, and I got a couple text messages from people asking if I was okay. Most were from friends, and some were even from wrong numbers.”

– Mr. Seeley

“I was at work. A customer came up to me and started yelling, ‘What is going on?’ I thought he was yelling at me, but he started pointing at the radio. My co-worker turned it up, and everyone in the store listened to the news.”

– Anna Zagaria (12)

“I was at church camp. The counselors got phone calls and announced it to all the campers, and we prayed about it.”

– Corbin Olsen (11)

“I was up north on my boat. My mom called me because my dad crosses the bridge to get to and from work, and she wanted to let me know that he was okay.”

– Kristina Loewen (12)

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