A Measure of Who We Are

Published on
by
The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

A Measure of Who We Are

by
Deborah Morse-Kahn
"Don't cry baby. Knew this was one way ticket, but you know I had to come. Love you wife." -- The Abyss, 1989

I came in on Interstate 394 and up onto Washington Avenue, and made my way east to Portland. One block to the river a parking space opened up, and I dove in. A half-minute on foot, and I was at the Stone Arch span on the dot of noon.

There might have been a thousand people on that bridge.

It had been a week since the unthinkable became sinkable. A bridge fell into the river. It carried dozens of vehicles and a hundred-plus humans. Most walked away, and we began our collective vigil of 36-hour days and a 10-day week.

It was local media guy Joe Soucheray who said to a New York reporter, "On 9/11, everyone ran out and first responders ran in. Here in Minneapolis, an interstate bridge falls at rush hour and everyone runs in!" That reporter's response had to be: "Everyone runs in? Who are you people?"

Who are we, indeed?

Our first and abiding image of the dusk and the water and the chaos and the sorrow was a young blonde woman, in a black wetsuit and yellow tether cord, diving and diving in the growing dark. Down she went, and up she came. She opened car doors, avoiding rebar and cement chunks. And she dove, and she dove. An off-duty fire captain, she waited neither for clearance or food-chain permission, but grabbed her gear, drove down to the river's edge from her North Side station, and went into the wreckage and the water. In the days to come, Shanna Hanson would be interviewed by everyone from the local folks to Radio Hanoi, and she finally begged off. "It's not about me. This isn't professional. I can't do this." End of interview.

Who are we, indeed?

On each bank of the river, citizens became first responders without thought or hesitation. They waded into the water, paced out onto the concrete spans, shimmied down the rebar. They just helped. Backboards, car doors, hand holds. Just helped, for hours and hours, into the night, until no one could see and the police captains and the fire marshals and the State Patrol brought a halt to the rescue effort and pulled everyone off the bridge and out of the water. The city asked that cell-phone calls be stopped to permit communication among first responders: All over the metro area, cell phones went silent. By nightfall the Red Cross was overwhelmed with volunteers and donations.

The hospitals saw an enormous percentage of medical personnel respond to the code-orange alert, some coming from cabins two and three hours away. They were needed, so they came. Safety officers from St. Paul and the suburbs came in without request or question to fill the empty police and fire department spaces on the city streets until Minneapolis could take care of its own once again.

The days following the I-35W bridge collapse brought a galaxy of media stars. As a longtime Star Tribune staffer stated so perfectly, "like iron filings to a magnet." They came for the crisis, and found ... order. Quiet order. There were tears, and there were deaths, by fire and by water. We were no longer in a rescue operation, but a recovery operation. But the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman, Mark Rosenker, had arrived the first night. His gentle, unchallengeably confident demeanor matched right up with Mayor R.T. Rybak's thoughtful and steady direction and Gov. Tim Pawlenty's sturdy grip on the state's emergency response, and between the three the stage was set for the days and nights to come. All we needed was closure.

And so we have waited. For the cranes to shift the massive debris, for the barges to haul away the rebar and concrete. For someone to declare that tilt-up slab of interstate bridge our fit memorial, with its magnificent Calder-like mobile of green, twisted metal girders. For the missing bodies. We have waited.

And while we have waited, we have made pilgrimage and vigil, to the banks of the river and the tops of buildings and the Stone Arch Bridge. Among those in shorts and shirts, suits and wingtips, flip-flops and camis, high heels and silks, t-shirts and jeans, the conversation was about helping. Could we be of any further assistance? Were the bereaved families being well cared for? Was blood still needed? Where could flowers be left?

Who are we, indeed?

 

***

I stood amidst the throng, leaning against the railing over the river. It was hot and humid, and the scene of broken bridge deck and green girders shimmered in the distance downriver beyond the locks. I considered cultures around the world for whom volunteerism is generally unknown. Russia. China. Famous stories of noninvolvement, the shrugged shoulder when asked for aid, children abandoned in orphanages, the starving stepped over on sidewalks. Social-service agencies and agents were never woven into their community fabric.

But are we here in Minnesota so different even from our fellow Americans?

"Here everyone runs in! Who are you people?"

Minneapolis was founded by Unitarians, Episcopalians, Jews and Presbyterians. We had an early and unpopular stand on slavery, driving hard for abolition before Lincoln ever came to office. The historic makeup of the state of Minnesota -- of Swedes and Norwegians, Germans and Irish -- came a bit later, but they brought their own powerful ethic for mutual aid and clean politics. The Rangers -- Italians and Finns, Slovaks and Czechs -- brought the cooperatives and intercooperation to Minnesota as a way of life, and it continues to dominate our state culture to this day.

This ethic of unquestioned mutual support has waxed and waned over centuries, and we Minnesotans have had our rough and unattractive moments, but when the hard times have come, all have responded. Again and again and again. It is no accident that Minnesota continues to draw an astonishing percentage of national refugee and emigré populations: It isn't the social welfare system that draws them; it's the welcome and honest kindness that is shown to those who have little, lost much, and have much to give. The corporate 5 percent club established by our business leaders decades ago was not sprung from a creative urge but was rather a natural outcome of a community ethic. Help others, do well, love God.

And, I would add from my own culture, be a mensch, be a mitzvah. A complete human being and a blessing to others.

This is who we are, indeed. We all went running in.

And, God forbid, at need we'll do it again.

Deborah Morse-Kahn is an author and director of Regional Research Associates in Minneapolis. She can be reached at dmk@regionalresearch.net.

© 2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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