Rebuilding

After bridge disaster, former W.Va. journalist put his life back together

Predicting the weather in August on the North Shore of Lake Superior can be a crapshoot, and as 6 p.m. approached, friends and family who had arrived for the outdoor barbecue found themselves winners as they basked under sunny skies and in a pleasant breeze. Nieces and nephews chased each other around the cabin in rural Little Marais, Minnesota, raising Cain and skinning knees in the process. Last rites were given to the pig now spinning on a spit. A celebratory din rustled the forest leaves, as relatives reunited and future in-laws met for the first time.

It was two days before my wedding, August 1, 2008.

Down on the shore, I stared into the tide, wondering when the submerged stones had last touched air. Time had washed them smooth. I peered further, and for a brief second saw pale, ghostly faces superimposed on the igneous rocks of the lake bottom. Their countenances were restless and sad. These lost souls didn’t belong in that body of chilled water. I bent over to scoop them out, but my hands drew from the lake only their tears. I clenched my eyelids and reopened them. The thirteen faces were gone, replaced with a slab of gabbro, and the crash of the waves awoke me from my momentary trance.

I looked over my left shoulder and stared at the palisade behind me. It poked into the clean blue sky, carrying on its shoulder a phalanx of evergreen and birch that waved to the ships carrying freight from Thunder Bay to Duluth. It had stood for thousands, maybe millions, of years. Just beyond that, my joyful family and my soon-to-be family celebrated as my fiancée, Sonja, and I prepared to merge our lives.

Everyone was going forward, putting in motion the months and months of planning for this very weekend. I, however, was standing in the pit, buffeted and imprisoned by the waves of a trauma that returned like the tide. I, too, wanted to move forward. I had to move forward. Two families expected it. My fiancée depended on it. Yet there I stood, frozen like the January rivers that flowed into Lake Gitchi-Gumi.

I pawed at the chunk of concrete that sat in the front pocket of my khaki shorts. Unlike the stones piled on the shore, it was jagged and grainy, its edges sharp. Cement and pebbles, it was a fragment of what had been tasked with carrying traffic along Interstate 35W into downtown Minneapolis. Now it was rubble, and as I held it, I felt it burning my palm. Nobody had expected the concrete and steel of the bridge to rival the lifespan of a coastal cliff, but all were caught off guard when it tumbled, like a pinecone from the stand of conifers above me.

It had been exactly one year since the 35W Bridge ripped itself from its perch over the Mississippi River. Thirteen individuals didn’t survive. I did — barely. Now I was picking up the pieces of my life, like a child plucking shells from the sandy shore with a plastic shovel and bucket, only to carry them home and ask, “Now what do I do with them?”

– from Garrett Ebling’s book

“Collapsed: A Survivor’s Climb From the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge.” 

The new 35W span in Minneapolis, the Saint Anthony Falls Bridge, opened Sept. 18, 2008.

The new 35W span in Minneapolis, the Saint Anthony Falls Bridge, opened Sept. 18, 2008.

These days, Garrett Ebling is enjoying life in his home state of Minnesota, where he stays busy as a sandwich shop owner and spends time with his wife, Sonja, and son, Cooper, who turned 2 on Saturday.

But never far from his mind is Aug. 1, 2007, the day he nearly died as the eight-lane 35W bridge suddenly crumpled into the Mississippi. He talks about the accident and its aftermath in his new book, “Collapsed: A Survivor’s Climb From the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge.”

Ebling, who started his journalism career at The Journal in Martinsburg more than a decade ago, was among the worst injured to survive the disaster. Thirteen others died when the bridge failed; Ebling and another 144 people were hurt.

He spent two months in the hospital, where numerous surgeries were needed to fix a severed colon, multiple bone fractures in his jaw and face, broken feet, a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in one of his arms.

He had to relearn everyday tasks such as walking and eating.

His emotional recovery took even longer, Ebling said. He spent three years in therapy to learn to deal with anxiety attacks, depression and other problems.

Ebling, an award-winning journalist who worked as a copy editor and occasional columnist at The Journal, left Martinsburg for a similar job in Loudoun County, Va., and then returned to work in Minnesota.

Four days before the bridge disaster, Ebling had been in touch with old newspaper friends in West Virginia and elsewhere with the news that his girlfriend had accepted his proposal of marriage.

He doesn’t remember the bridge’s collapse or his red Ford Focus plunging 100 feet into the Mississippi. He knows that the river was at his neck when bystanders freed him from his jammed seatbelt and pulled him to safety.

He spent the next three weeks in a medically induced coma.

“I know you have to make the most of every day,” said Ebling, who sometimes speaks about his experience to community groups, church congregations and the like. “You don’t know if you’re going to have tomorrow.”

For Ebling, the 2010 settlement that gave him the funds to start his restaurant is one of the blessings to come from the disaster. In 2010, a San Francisco-based engineering company agreed to pay more than $52 million to settle lawsuits with survivors and family members of victims.

Ebling introduced the Which Wich sandwich franchise to Minnesota, first opening a store in Minnepolis in 2011 and then a second store in Maple Grove last year.

Garrett Ebling, who worked in the Eastern Panhandle after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1999, survived the Minnepolis bridge collapse (left) nearly six years ago

Garrett Ebling, who worked
in the Eastern Panhandle after
graduating from the University of
Wisconsin in 1999, survived the
Minnepolis bridge collapse (left)
nearly six years ago

“I just realized I didn’t want to spend the years ahead working in a cubicle,” he said. “I wanted to do work that’s more active, to be out interacting with the public and acting as a mentor to the people here – for a lot of them, this is their very first job. This work is a way to add happiness to people’s day and I really love seeing that.”

It’s work that puts his healed body to the test. “Running around so much, by the end of the day, my ankles are aching, my whole body feels it – I don’t have any trouble remembering my injuries,” he said. “But I try to look at the blessings that have come out of the experience.

“If we could go back in time, none of us who were on the bridge that day would choose the pain and suffering, but at the same time I have to say there have been a lot of positives that we can look at, too.”

Ebling is aware that West Virginia is no stranger to bridge mayhem. When news of the Minneapolis disaster came, most West Virginians probably thought of the Silver Bridge tragedy when 46 people died near Point Pleasant on Dec. 15, 1967.

“I won’t say that when I’m driving across a bridge I sometimes don’t still feel a little nervous – or when I’m stopped at a light on a bridge,” Ebling said. “But I remind myself that the odds of a bridge collapsing are very, very small.

“I just talk myself through it, ‘The light’s going to turn green and you’re going to drive across. No problem.’ And it does, and I do.”

 

Want to know more?

Read additional excerpts and find information on purchasing “Collapsed: A Survivor’s Climb From the Wreckage of the 35W Bridge” at 35wbridgecollapse.com.

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