Wednesday night is usually grocery night in the Hadley household. When you live downtown there aren't all that many grocery choices; the nearest one, Lunds, is just across the river, but it's not the kind of place you go when you live on a budget
So for us, the choice is usually to go over to Roseville, where there's a Cub and a Super Target. You get there by going out on Washington Avenue and taking a left on to the 35W bridge that runs over the Mississippi River, about six blocks from our condo. I'd get home from work and do a half-hour on the exercise machine, we'd have a quick dinner, and then we'd head out between 6 and 6:30.
But it was hot today, in the 90s with a forecast of rain, and Judie had been out to lunch with my aunt and was tired and didn't really feel like going back out, and so we decided to wait until tomorrow. Because of that, we were home at 6:20 when the first bulletins came on the local news that the bridge had collapsed, that there were perhaps 50 or 60 cars in the water, that it was a disaster.
About that time we became aware of the sirens outside. Now, living where we do (downtown, not far from Hennepin County Medical Center), you get used to the sound of sirens, and so perhaps they'd been going for a few minutes. But these were continuous, and there were so many of them. Police cars, fire engines, ambulances. It could only be for one reason.
As I said, we're only about six blocks from where the bridge collapesd. By going out the front door of our condo and crossing the street, we could walk across the Stone Arch Bridge, which parallels 35W. A woman from our building was headed out there; her husband usually drove across that bridge to get home, and she hadn't heard from him yet. Judie asked her when she'd last talked to him; she thought about 20 minutes, which would put it after the collapse, but when she looked at her watch she thought it might have been longer ago than that. She was shaking, fighting hysteria, headed down to see what she could find out.
There were perhaps hundreds of people already on the bridge, with more coming from every direction. Emergency vehicles screamed across the bridge, which is usually limited to pedestrian traffic. Black smoke rose from the scene, the fire from the semitrailer that was shown prominently on TV. We could see a portion of the bridge standing up at a 45 degree angle, other pieces beyond our sight, in the river.The street was jammed with cars, trucks, people. The sirens were endless; police and fire boats coming from Stillwater, a town located further down the river from Minneapolis. More police cars, patrolmen hanging out the doors, asking people to get out of the way. A blue command center being set up. Flashing lights everywhere. A Metro bus, slowly moving toward the river, the sign on the front reading "Rescue Bus." People were taking pictures, taking videos, talking on their cell phones. We ran into a co-worker from my office, who took that bridge every day to and from work. He didn't really know what to do, just kept walking down, to see what he could see.
For all its faults, Minneapolis is a pretty ordinary place. Sure, there are the murders and the gang violence, but there's never been a major airplane crash here, the most famous fire we've ever had was in an empty office building on Thanksgiving night and didn't hurt anyone, there just isn't anything to compare to what we saw and heard tonight, at the far end of our neighborhood.
It's dark now, at 9:30. The sirens have eased off; everyone who needs to be down there is already there. The large surface parking lot behind our building has emptied out, and there isn't nearly as much traffic out there as there was a while ago. The rain that was forecast has held off, but the temperature is still high, the air heavy and still. The news coverage, locally and nationally, will continue into the night, and the headlines in tomorrow's Strib will be predictable.
Tomorrow is Thursday, and it will be grocery night for us. We'll have to find a different route to the store, of course, or a different store. It's true we could easily have been on that bridge when it went down tonight; it was the right night, and while we often would have been going over it around 6:30, there have been nights when it's been closer to 6:00, or 6:10. It might be somewhat melodramatic to suggest that we should have been on that bridge tonight. A lot of people should have been, and weren't, and we can be grateful for that. But I don't want to put that fine a point on it, though, on how close a call it might have been. It was enough to have been that close to it, to see the flashing lights and hear the sirens and see the helicopters hovering over the neighborhood, to see your city and a road you take being featured on CNN and Fox News.
It was enough to be that close, to see and hear it all, to listen to people worried for their friends and loved ones. It was enough, to remind you once again (as if you really needed reminding) of the fragility of life, the fleetingness of it all. And for those of us of faith, it doesn't mean that life is meaningless; rather, it it reminds us of how packed with meaning every second of life is. It was enough to make you think about that decision to stay home tonight, and to go on your knees in Thanksgiving. It was enough, perhaps, to remind you that life is never enough, that there is always more to experience, more to do, and less and less time in which to do it.