IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'New normal' for Minn. bridge collapse survivor

For most Minnesotans, what happened on Aug. 1 has receded from daily notice. But for Ebling, and the 15 or so others seriously injured in the catastrophe, the last few months have been just the beginning of a long struggle to regain their health.
Image: Garrett Ebling
Garrett Ebling, right, works on flexibility with physical therapist Diane Clark on Dec. 10 in Minnetonka, Minn. Ebling was one of the worst injured when his vehicle plummeted 60 feet into the Mississippi River when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1.Dawn Villella / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The ruins of the Minneapolis bridge collapse are all cleaned up now, but Garrett Ebling is still picking up the wreckage it made of his life.

"Every step I take I'm sore, so that's a reminder. Every time I look in the mirror and see my new nose, it's a reminder. My mouth gets sore every time I chew — that's a reminder," said Ebling, a 32-year-old journalist who was among the worst injured when the Interstate 35W bridge plummeted 60 feet into the Mississippi River.

For most Minnesotans, what happened on Aug. 1 has receded from daily notice. Answers from a federal investigation of the collapse are months away, and at the state Capitol it has become just another subject of partisan feuding. Commuters have found new routes around the gap, and construction of the replacement bridge is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

But for Ebling, and the 15 or so others seriously injured in the catastrophe, the last few months have been just the beginning of a long struggle to regain their health.

Finding milestones
Ebling's "new sense of normal," as he calls it, means recovering from numerous bone fractures in his face and jaw, two broken feet, a compound fracture in his left arm, a severed colon and a collapsed lung.

"You try to find milestones," Ebling said.

He has a few: The day he left the hospital, two months after the collapse. Walking for the first time without a walker, right before Thanksgiving. His first day back at work for a few hours, about four months after the collapse.

Before Aug. 1, Ebling's life was going pretty good. He was settling into a job doing public relations for Great Clips Inc. after nearly a decade of jumping from one job to another at newspapers in Virginia and Minnesota.

Just four days before the collapse, he proposed to his girlfriend — and she said yes.

Collapse recalled
The day of the collapse, Ebling was driving home from an office picnic he had organized at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul. The 35W bridge also was on his normal commute.

"I was about a third of the way across," Ebling said. "I had my iPod on, the music was on loud. My driver's side window was open — it was hot that day, but not so hot, and I wanted a breeze."

Ebling noticed the cars in front of him were shaking. "All of a sudden they all just dropped at the same time," he said.

"Then half a second later, it wasn't even a second later, I felt as if the ground below me was gone and I felt that momentary sense of weightlessness, like you're on a roller coaster that's about to drop, and then I remember my car starting to fall forward.

"And the next thing I remember is, it's August 19th."

‘The guy is a miracle’
Ebling's car fell 60 feet into a shallow part of the river. His face and feet bore the brunt of the impact, and the seat belt caused the injuries to his colon and lungs.

His face was "a bloody mess," said Rick Kraft, a cable TV installer who was near the bridge and, with an unidentified man, waded into the river to pull Ebling out of his car and to the shore. Ebling was conscious and talking about his injuries, Kraft recalled, though Ebling has no memory of it.

Within an hour of the collapse, Ebling was at nearby Hennepin County Medical Center. The first concern was his severed colon, but he was in such rough shape that doctors refrained from operating for nearly two days.

"I thought he was going to die at numerous times those first few days," said Dr. Chad Richardson, the surgeon who repaired Ebling's colon.

Ebling eventually underwent six operations — two facial reconstructions plus operations on his jaw, his left arm, his left foot, his colon and his diaphragm — and he might someday need more. He has metal rods and pins in his foot, arm and throughout his jaw and chin. He awaits permanent repairs to his chipped and broken teeth, and needs regular physical therapy to improve his walking.

But Ebling has recovered faster than his doctor expected.

"The guy is a miracle," said Dr. Nemesio Herrera, who's overseeing Ebling's physical rehabilitation. "He beat all the odds considering all the trauma he had."

Wedding planned near collapse anniversary
Ebling isn't sure how many bones he broke; his face was such a mess, doctors couldn't even tell for sure. He counts 18 scars on his body.

When he first regained regular consciousness, Ebling said he immediately felt "very blessed and very elated that I was alive." Still, in those early days the physical damage stung — when his rescuer Kraft came to visit, Ebling wouldn't see him because "I didn't want him to see how bad I looked." The two have talked by phone several times since but haven't yet met.

Ebling says he sometimes suffers anxiety attacks, like the time when he had to move off a set of shaky bleachers during a roller derby match.

Still, he tries to focus on the positive: His workers' compensation insurance is covering his medical bills, and he feels a stronger connection to his loved ones.

That outlook helps explain the date Ebling and girlfriend Sonja Birkeland chose for their wedding — Aug. 3, 2008, one year and two days after the bridge collapse.

"I had picked all these other dates but he went right for that one," Birkeland said.

"He's like, I have to take back this day. I have to take victory over it. Finally I said 'OK, Garrett, we're going to bawl that weekend anyway. We might as well do it at our wedding.'"