We’re not in the natural disaster business here in the center of the country. We don’t have either of the oceans at our doorstep. There is no large lake on which a large ship can sink in a withering storm. We have tornadoes that barely warrant mention, occasionally mussing our hair a bit but not doing much more. Rain comes our way and Dave Dahl runs his hand through his receding blond hair and tells us how many minutes is the storm from our zip code and block. During 9/11 authorities decided to evacuate the IDS Center, 55 stories, the tallest building in Minnesota. It seems a little silly now.
We’re not big on natural disasters. So, instead, we had to create one of our own. A “where were you when you heard the news” kind of event. Hooray for Minnesota. A bridge collapse.
One hour from now the three national news anchors will step in front of the cameras of their respective networks and have as a backdrop the collapse of the busiest river bridge in the state. During rush hour. Right before a Minnesota Twins game just a few blocks away. In full view of the people working late in the towers of downtown Minneapolis. Swoosh. In the silence that followed many who were first on the scene couldn’t even figure out what bridge it was that had gone down. Even people who were on the bridge and were trying to get off. The ultimate nightmare coming real of dialing 911 and not knowing what to tell the operator. That happened to a lady who was on the scene and was the first caller. Bridge? What bridge? Where?
The local authorities now report only four confirmed dead. The number of missing ranging from 20 to 30. Seeing the family members on local TV flashing a photo of the Mom, the spouse of 30 years. “She doesn’t usually use that bridge. We just know she is alive. She is a fighter.” We know there will be more family members like that. And within a few days the magnitude of this event will become clearer to the people living so close to the eye of the camera it is hard to understand just what has happened. It is no 9/11 in New York and Washington, DC. It is no Katrina in New Orleans. But we compare it to that only because those cataclysmic events are in our recent memory.
As a former newspaper reporter it is all I can do to keep from going to the site. But I won’t do it. I know that people’s loved ones are entombed in that bridge lying in the water. And divers can’t even look for them because the currents are too dangerous. The local reporter talks to the witness and asks characteristically: “Did you see any dead bodies in the water?” He waits expectantly for the answer. And she looks at him as though she doesn’t understand the question and then slowly shakes her head, no. It is like 9/11 in that the dead are hidden from our view. And family members wait and hold out hope. I have been to New York City a number of times since 9/11. Business has taken me only blocks from “Ground Zero” and I have never gone to see it. When there is a memorial I will visit. But I do not want to gape into the open grave of so many innocent dead.
Today I called the Star Tribune a newspaper whose offices are so close to the disaster that their reporters can more easily walk than drive to the site. I wanted to suggest they consider writing a story about the news media covering this story. The three national news anchors here. The media organizations coming here from all over the world. The guy on the other end had the characteristic journalist’s cynical response that I mostly expected would be the reception to my suggestion. Then he told me: “We have 150 people from our newsroom covering this story.” That detail took my breath away for a moment. Then I said … well, that’s part of the story as well, don’t you think. He seemed far from convinced. There was so much to do. The notion of assigning somebody to write about the media must have seemed absurd. My guess is they are being besieged with requests by media organizations throughout the world.
We sit here 4.6 miles away. The location, all too familiar, especially to me because I worked almost in the shadow of that bridge for nearly a year. I commuted to work on a bicycle passing under it. On a bus. In my car. Not crossing. I didn’t need an Interstate Highway to get to work in the city. I was already there. Four point six miles away. I don’t have to go to the scene to know what it looks like. I already know. I can see the bridge. I can see the cars flashing across it when traffic isn’t backed up as it so often was. I can see those weird trusses that, I kid you not, I always wondered how they managed to keep that thing in the air. We could hear the sirens yesterday as every emergency service known to the Twin Cities rushed to that scene. And we were glued to our TV sets. They broadcast continuously through the evening, into the night, into the morning. They are still broadcasting now.
In 30 minutes the lights will go on. Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charles Gibson will lean into the bright lights and tell our story to the world.