Minn. first responders share first moments at bridge
The Associated Press
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MINNEAPOLIS — It was just her sixth day on the job, but Officer Anna Hemmer knew she had to do something to help the badly injured woman at the site of a collapsed bridge.
She held the woman's hand and told her to keep breathing. She called the woman by her first name. She asked for the shirt of a female bystander and used it as a bandage to apply pressure to the victim's head. When the woman started to say goodbye to loved ones, Hemmer wouldn't let her, and instead said everything would be OK -- even though something that smelled like gasoline was dripping on Hemmer's head.
"She looked like she needed someone to stay there and hold her hand, just to keep her calm," Hemmer said. "I told her just to keep breathing."
Hemmer and several other first responders spoke Friday about their initial moments at the site of a horrific bridge collapse that left at least five confirmed dead and about 100 injured. They talked about crawling under train cars and sliding down steel beams to get to the injured. They spoke of the people they helped, the people they couldn't save, and the bravery of citizens who made it out of their own vehicles, then stuck around to help others.
"The thing that struck me, that will remain with me, is that these individuals weren't fleeing for their lives. When they got out of their vehicles they were stopping and helping individuals to the left and to the right of them," said Lt. Ed Frizell, who has been on the department for 14 years.
Frizell went with fire rescuers to check out cars that fell more than 60 feet as the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed Wednesday into the Mississippi River during rush hour. He said he came across individuals in those vehicles who couldn't be saved, though he wouldn't say how many. He and other rescuers decided they had to focus on helping the living, and once they removed as many wounded as they could, they went back for the dead.
"My prayers go out to families of victims," he said.
Frizell, who also has 19 years with the National Guard, said he spent six months in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and had gotten used to seeing collapsed bridges and destroyed buildings.
"When I arrived on this scene, it was absolutely surreal. It was worse than anything I had ever seen," he said.
Sgt. Karl Olson, a 10-year veteran of the department, said his most intense moment came when he realized he had to cross a steel beam -- part of the collapsed bridge -- to get to injured people who were on the bridge's deck, which somehow fell straight down and landed in the middle of the river.
After realizing he couldn't walk across the wet beam, which was tilted, he and two other officers took off their gun belts, straddled the beam, and slid down it, with their legs in the water feeling the pull of the river's mighty current.
If my wife and kids were on that span, I'd want someone to help them," he said.
Officer Jay Schmitt slid down that beam with Olson, and tried to help as many people as possible. One of the construction workers who had been on the bridge needed help and was having trouble breathing.
Schmitt, who has EMT training and has been with the department for 10 years, cut through the man's clothes and saw that he likely had some broken ribs. He said the man gritted his teeth through the pain while Schmitt and others put him on a backboard.
"Those construction workers are tough," he said.
So are the first responders -- who said they didn't consider themselves heroes, but only did what they were trained to do.
"This is what I signed up for," Hemmer said, but added, "I know I never want to see something this bad again."