Getting at the story with a little narrow notebook

They did not stand on the banks with microphone in hand jamming it into the face of an eyewitness: “Did you see any dead bodies?” Most of them have no fancy electronic gear. No cameras. No whirlygigs spinning around on their beanie hats.

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They come equipped with the same narrow white spiral bound notebook that I used 30 years ago during my brief journalism career during a decidedly lower tech time. They write their notes on both sides of each sheet and with that capture history one mental snapshot at a time.  

Reporter's notebook

During a disaster you sit in front of your TV watching the same images over and over again, waiting for the massive public radio organization about nine miles away in Saint Paul to stop broadcasting “Marketplace” and get someone to the scene. You hear the same information on the TV delivered breathlessly by reporters who are trying their best not to allow themselves to be stunned into silence by the horrific vision behind them. You wait and wait and wait in front of the TV for the newspaper to bounce against your screen door the next day. You know, at least for the moment, there are a dozen actual journalists issuing forth from the newspaper office for every one of their compadres in television and radio.

The newspaper reporters stand back. Their photographers scramble in every direction. The television people — especially those from the networks — elbow their way to the front. TV and even public radio can’t, won’t, tell you what happened. TV and radio can’t put you on those concrete chunks with the survivors following those able to help the injured. TV and radio cannot describe for you what it is like to watch a car slide off the deck into the black waters of the Mississippi River, a trail of bubbles coming to the surface representing a life being snuffed out as you watch helplessly. Asking yourself, how did I survive? They can’t capture all of that because they can’t BE there when it happens. And if they can’t BE there they settle for secondary images. The stories they are telling make very little sense.

The newspaper reporters, an endangered species, study, synthesize, argue with their colleagues and editors, write and occasionally rewrite. Interviewing everyone they can find: survivors, family and friends of survivors, family of the dead and missing. They bring humanity to the enormity of tragedy. And if that were not enough, they take their little narrow notebooks and start trying to find out why it happened. They are everywhere at once. Interviewing every expert and piecing together the puzzle as best they can. Long after this story loses its visual impact and thus the interest of visual media, the little narrow notebook people layer on a little more. Inspections, politics, money, power, public opinion, Congress, special session, NTSB final report. Every day somewhere near the front page we will read about it.

In short order public radio and TV and all of the new media will be building their stories using one secondary source conveniently delivered to them each day.

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    Am I dead? I must be dead

    By Pam Louwagie, Star Tribune

    Last update: August 04, 2007 – 10:34 PM
    It was nearing 6 p.m. on Wednesday when Kristin West walked out to her car. She couldn’t wait to get home, kick off her cork wedgies and change into shorts. As she smoked her usual pre-commute cigarette, she chatted on her cell phone with her son about dinner — McDonald’s — and then hopped into her Chevy Trailblazer. Minutes later, she turned northbound onto Interstate 35W and tooled happily toward home.

    Cars were backed up on the bridge over the Mississippi River. Workers were repairing the bridge deck, and traffic was down to four lanes.

    At the middle of the bridge, cars began to move a little more easily. And then, over the blare of a Chris Daughtry CD, West heard an odd rumble.

    Her SUV slammed her from side to side, and suddenly she was floating. Hurtling through the air as if she was riding on wind.

    The bridge that she’d crossed a thousand times was dropping out from under her.

    I can’t die today, she thought.

    Then, I’m really gonna die today.

    As she fell, the contents of her purse spilled onto the floor. She scrambled to find her phone, grabbing at the charger cord and pulling for the end. Visions of her family flashed in her head.

    I’ll never see them again, she thought. I have to get the phone. She had to tell them one last time that she loved them.

    The SUV rocked forward, slamming her legs against the bottom of the steering wheel. Another jolt pressed her body back down into her seat. The SUV continued to drop.

    She found the end of the charger cord but it was empty; the phone had fallen off.

    Water splashed everywhere, a giant wave crashing over her SUV and cascading past the windows.

    OK, we stopped, she thought. Now we’re going to sink.

    She spotted the phone at her feet, and grabbed it.

    Bridge collapsed! Her husband heard the panic in her voice.

    Get out of the car! he said. Get ready to swim if you have to.

    She looked around and knew that she was stranded. The span of bridge they were on was now a mangled mess of twisted metal and broken concrete. A half-dozen cars were scattered about. And on all sides, the Mississippi River.

    The driver’s door was smashed against the median, so she lurched across the seat and yanked at the passenger door handle. It wouldn’t budge. The window! She could crawl out the window.

    Suddenly, a woman in scrubs appeared outside the passenger door. I can’t open my door. Can you help? West asked.

    And the woman opened the door.

    • • •

    Shortly after 6 p.m., Jeff Ringate stood in his hard hat on the southbound lanes near the middle of the bridge, talking with co-workers and a state concrete inspector about pouring a layer of roadway.

    Workers had been on the bridge for weeks, jackhammering up the roadbed and making repairs.

    Ringate hopped onto a small construction truck to move it out of the way. At that moment, the road shook. Then he felt his stomach drop.

    Right away, he knew: The bridge was collapsing.

    This is it, he thought. This is the end.

    Images of his pregnant wife, Kortnie, and their 8-month-old daughter, America, flashed through his mind as he fell.

    The bridge landed hard on the river, sending giant waves of water and dust into the air. People screamed.

    Ringate fell onto the edge of the bridge, his legs in the water. His first thought was one of amazement: I’m alive.

    He was stranded on a broad span of concrete in the river, but he was still breathing, still moving. He crawled back onto the bridge. Cars dropped into the water. People scrambled to get out, but even as he watched, some sank with a gurgle.

    He spotted his co-worker Josh Weidendorf in the water. Swim over! Ringate yelled, and Josh splashed toward him.

    Ringate looked around desperately for something, anything, to use to haul in his buddy. He grabbed a construction broom that was lying on the pavement.

    Teetering at the edge of the concrete, he extended the handle as far out into the water as he could. Weidendorf was able to grab it, and Ringate pulled him up.

    But there were more people in the water.

    With the broom handle, Weidendorf and Ringate hauled in as many as they could: A woman clutching a blanket, screaming that her baby was still in the car. A woman with cuts all over her body.

    With his bare hands, Ringate pulled in a man with long red hair who was tangled in debris. When he made it to safety, the man dashed over to a woman on the bridge span and grabbed her in his arms.

    The state inspector huddled on the concrete, covered in dust and not moving. He struggled to speak, wincing in pain.

    And Greg Jolstad, a guy the other construction workers called Jolly, was missing.

    The air was heavy with concrete dust, and now it began to fill with black smoke. High above them, on the twisted span, a semitruck was burning.

    Weidendorf heard a woman’s voice: Everybody OK? Who’s hurt? Anybody hurt?

    And a woman in medical scrubs walked up.

    • • •

    W hen her silver-blue Saturn stopped falling, Amy Lindholm thought she was dead.

    She’d been on her way home from her job as a medical assistant, still dressed in her navy-and-tan scrubs. She was talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone when she heard the rumble of what she thought was thunder, followed by a loud crack.

    Everything went dark.

    When the light came back, she was still in her car, still on the road, still on her cell phone. But she was surrounded by the haze of concrete dust and faroff screams.

    Am I dead? she thought. I must be dead.

    Her boyfriend’s shouts jolted her: Are you OK?

    The bridge exploded! she told him. The bridge exploded!

    She got out of her car in a daze and peered inside the smashed-up car behind hers, but it was empty. She hurried to the next one, a black Trailblazer. The woman inside said she couldn’t get out. Lindholm tried the passenger door, and it popped open.

    I can panic, Lindholm thought, or I can try to relax everybody and help them. She knew what she had to do.

    The bridge had split right down the median, with a widening gap that opened to the Mississippi River. She ran to the narrow end of the gap and gingerly tiptoed across. On the other side was a group of construction workers. One man lay on the ground.

    • • •

    W est paced near her Trail- blazer, her sandals crunching in the concrete debris. Her blonde hair was thick with dust. On the cell phone, her husband kept talking, calming her down.

    The giant raft of bridge concrete seemed to have stabilized, but she worried that it still might sink.

    There isn’t anywhere I can go, she told him.

    Ditch your shoes, he told her. You can’t swim in heels.

    The pavement was littered with tiny chunks of sharp-edged concrete.

    I don’t think that’s a good idea, she said.

    Get to where the stream flows away from you. If you have to swim, you can’t swim upstream, he said. If that thing goes under, it’s going to pull you. Just take a deep breath, and swim if you have to.

    She couldn’t concentrate on his words. She had trouble understanding him. She marveled at all the people who were on the deck with her –six or seven still alive, most of them walking around. Across the median, she saw construction workers. One was on the ground. How had they all survived that fall?

    What? she asked her husband, over and over again.

    I’ll be there, he told her.

    You can’t get here, she told him, looking at the debris, water and smoke surrounding them. Nobody can.

    • • •

    Across the median, Lindholm did her best to keep people calm. Everything’s gonna be OK, she told them. She was not sure what else to say.

    Two construction workers stood nearby, ready to help, but unsure how. A woman with gashes in her legs sat with her back against the median. The men had fished her out of the water and propped her up there. She appeared to be in shock. She said her back hurt.

    One construction worker was blinded by dust. Another crouched on the ground, not moving.

    Who has water? Lindholm asked. Someone looked around and found a cooler with two water bottles inside.

    Anyone have a towel? Someone grabbed a towel from inside a car.

    Lindholm tended the injured woman by the median, pouring water into her cuts. She tried to comfort her, rubbing her shoulder gently and calling her Sweetie.

    She moved on to the construction worker whose eyes were gritty with concrete dust. She handed him the water bottle and a towel, and he rinsed out his eyes.

    She crouched down next to the concrete inspector, who was still on the ground. He thought he’d broken some ribs, and his back hurt. His arm was bloody.

    Don’t move, she told him.

    Bone from his elbow stuck out of his skin. She poured water over the wound and gently brushed at the gravel with the towel.

    When she looked up, she saw crowds gathering on the riverbanks. People were lined up on the 10th Avenue bridge. Some were taking pictures and talking on their cell phones. The sky was hazy with smoke and stank of burning chemicals.

    And then rescue workers appeared, climbing out of small boats. A team headed toward the concrete inspector. Lindholm squatted down beside the woman at the median and tried to get her to smile. Well, this was exciting, she told her. Nothing like getting off of work and having this happen.

    Rescue workers fitted a neck brace on the injured woman and loaded her onto a stretcher.

    Kristin West climbed into an airboat with two other women and a man. Lindholm and Ringate stayed behind to help.

    One by one, they were plucked from the brink of death.

    • • •

    In the days since, each has wondered about the others on that section of bridge in the middle of the river. Their memories of the collapse — hazy at first — have grown more vivid with the passing hours, though none can say for sure how long they were on the span. Twenty minutes. An hour. Two hours. They aren’t sure.

    Questions linger about those they helped and those who helped them. “You get a bond,” Lindholm said. Then the connections made in times of horror are lost.

    “You’re together as one, and then you kind of get taken apart.”

    Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102 •

    © 2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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