NEW ULM - An Andover author, entrepreneur and former journalist with New Ulm roots calmly chronicled in vivid detail his harrowing experience in the I-35 bridge collapse and his trying moments and days that followed Thursday at Orchard Hill Assisted Living and the New Ulm Public Library.
A Great Clips senior corporate communications specialist, Garrett Ebling attended the annual summer picnic at Como Park on a hot Aug. 1 afternoon in 2007 before driving his red Ford Focus south on the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River, in search of shade, a cool drink and appetizers at a nearby eating establishment.
"I was in a traffic jam caused by construction equipment on the bridge that closed a traffic lane," Ebling said. "I got a third of the way across the bridge when it violently shook. I looked to the side, then ahead, just in time to see brake lights of the vehicles in front of me drop out of sight as if I was watching an action adventure movie on a screen in front of me. Half a second later, I felt my car jolt and a sense of weightlessness beneath my tires. I was falling, more than 100 feet, front of the car first, as the bridge dropped."
Staff photo by Fritz Busch
Author, entrepreneur and former journalist Garrett Ebling of Andover shares his survival story after the Aug. 1, 2007 I-35W bridge collapse Thursday at Orchard Hill Assisted Living, New Ulm.
Ebling said he felt relieved but realized something bad had happened when he landed in the river. Water began rising around him and he was trapped by a jammed seat belt due to the severity of the fall. He was conscious as dust from the collapsed concrete bridge settled around his battered body and car. Ebling somehow got his left leg outside the driver-side window.
He remained conscious, but in shock, with amnesia due to his vast injuries - two broken feet, a broken arm, severed colon, ruptured diaphragm, collapsed lung, jaw broken in three places, broken facial plates and a right eye injury.
"The trauma to my face was immense. It was essentially shattered," Ebling said. "Doctors said it was equivalent to driving into a brick wall at 100 mph."
Two young men nearby became his angels - a University of Minnesota Dental School student and a Comcast cable technician rushed to the river's edge and swam to Ebling's car, finding him trapped. The Comcast technician swam to shore, found a cutting tool, returned to Ebling and cut him loose from the seat belt.
The men pulled him out of the car as water rose to just below his neck, then floated him to shore, one of the men underneath Ebling to keep him afloat. Ebling said his name in between gurgles, his face covered with blood.
On shore, First Responders and paramedics took care of him. Within an hour, he underwent the first of many surgical operations at Hennepin County Medical Center.
"Doctors told me later that they were busy treating my most life-threatening injuries first. They said they weren't sure if I would make it through my first night in the hospital," Ebling said.
In a medically-induced coma for 19 days, Ebling's hands were tied down because he was prone to ripping tubes out of his mouth and nose plus the IVs in his arms and chest. His jaw remained wired shut for a long period of time, making it difficult for him to respond to many media requests he received.
Six months after the bridge fell, Ebling gave a speech as part of a remembrance service at Roseville Lutheran Church:
"There is a Japanese proverb that goes, 'fall seven times, stand up eight.' As bridge victims, survivors or whatever else you want to call us, we know all about falling. Fate, for whatever reason, put us on the I-35W bridge...and sent us flailing. We all fell - hard. God decided to take 13 of us home. We continue to pray for them and their families. ... I have always tried to see the good in this - even as I sat in the bottom of the pit, looking up from the depths, knowing it would be a long, hard climb out. ... Now it is my time to climb. ... God has given by a second opportunity to paint myself as who I ought to be: more loving, more committed, more aware, more like Him. Now that's something worth standing for."
Ebling married his fiance Sonja Birkeland, a woman whom he proposed to just four days before the bridge collapse, a year and two days later. The couple and their young son Cooper live in Andover.
In his recently released book "Collapsed, A Survivor's Climb From the Wreckage of the I-35W Bridge," Ebling detailed survivors' stories, which he said were missing from the investigations and political debates. Also an entrepreneur, Ebling is a Which Wich Superior Sandwiches franchisee with stores in Blaine and Maple Grove.
"That's life. Sometimes it takes you to places you never imagined you'd go," Ebling said.
(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org).