By Teri Blair
It’s been 40 days since the 35W Bridge collapsed. Today, a sunny Fall day, I’ve come down to view the site…the first day (since the first fitful days of August) that I’ve been here. I’m writing this from the 10th Ave Bridge. I stand close enough to the collapse site to see everything, practically close enough to touch the pillars, the crushed railroad cars, the twisted steel. It looks smaller than I expected, like that feeling I have when I go back to my elementary school and the rooms seem little.
As in early August, a huge crowd gathers. We stand in respectful silence and awe. Seeing. It sinks in, one level deeper. In the river there are 5 barges, the ones used for clean up. They bob slightly in the muddy Mississippi, and I wonder how the divers found anyone. The river is dark, even with the midday sun. Two of the barges have cranes several stories high perched on them, and I don’t see the flags at first. I can’t see much at first. There is too much to look at, and all I can do is stand there. Absorbing it into my cells. But then I see it; a flag is flying against the blue sky, the Minneapolis skyline in the background. I instantly remember seeing the flags flying at Ground Zero, and I have the same rush of faith and patriotism and tenderness for what has happened. I look around, and see flags everywhere around the collapse site. There are 8. On the cranes, the barges, the trailer where the demolition crew takes their breaks. And I know someone thought that through. It was the way someone showed up for what happened here.
I walk the length of the bridge. Slowly. When I get to the end and turn to walk back, women begin to pass me wearing cotton dresses and white bonnets. And then their men come. The single ones clean-shaven, the married with beards. My attention turns from the bridge to the Mennonites, and I realize they are curious, too. Then, quite suddenly, the group of 50 clusters near one of the lookout points and forms a choir. They begin to sing a cappella hymns in 4-part harmony. Their voices are gentle, soothing, the music floating over the site and the people viewing it. I am singing the lyrics with them in my head—all familiar songs from my early upbringing in the church. A Mennonite man approaches me with a CD of their music. I accept it. He tells me they have driven up from southern Iowa to sing on the bridge. A 5-hour trip. They sing 7 songs, and continue across the bridge.
I continue walking. An artist paints the collapsed bridge with her oils, an easel set up. Parents quietly explain to their children what they’re seeing. The voices are mainly those of the children, innocent questions about how people drown, would the choo-choo train be okay; one cries when he thinks his big brother has a better view.
I came here today simply because I needed to. I came without expectations. It was time. What I didn’t plan on was the feeling of tremendous unity. Everyone tries to make sense of this, and brings what they have. The Army Corps of Engineers brings their flags; the Mennonites bring their music, the artist her palette. A feeling of deep peace permeates the crowd. And I can see somehow (as the Mennonites have sung)…It is well with my soul.
About Teri: Teri is a writer from Minnesota, living in Minneapolis. She went to the I-35W collapse site every day for several days immediately following the tragedy, but she was not able to see the bridge up close due to barricades blocking public access. Teri again visited the site this past weekend, where she did the writing practice “40 Days, 8 Flags, and 1 Mennonite Choir.” This post is a follow-up to ”Thornton Wilder & Bridges,” a piece Teri wrote shortly after the August 1, 2007, bridge collapse.