Story by Kathryn Schmidt, Red Cross Volunteer
I was out running errands when I heard of the bridge collapse on the car radio. It had to have been only minutes after it happened. I pulled over and called in to the Red Cross chapter to see if I was needed and was told, “Yes. Come right away.”
I arrived fairly quickly, but I think I was the last vehicle to drive right to the chapter, then the roads were closed off. The Red Cross chapter, being just a couple blocks away from the bridge was already set up as the staging area for all emergency responders, so the parking lot and surrounding roads were filled with police and fire vehicles, including a large mobile office which became their command center.
I went directly into the chapter to a meeting that was just starting, which assigned volunteers to various duties. I was assigned to open a Family Assistance Center, which was to be located in the nearby hotel on Washington Ave, a Holiday Inn at the time. Because of this assignment, I didn’t see more of what took place at the chapter that evening.
A Family Assistance Center is a place of comfort, a place to wait for information, a place to worry until your questions are answered. We had snacks and beverages available, which can help with stress. But mostly we had counselors: both the Red Cross stress team made up of Minnesota licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, etc. who are specially trained to work with folks stressed by the shock and uncertainty of disasters, and whether their loved ones are okay. Also we had a team of faith-based counselors such as pastors, priests, rabbis, chaplains, for those who find comfort in faith-based support.
My thoughts of this event continue to include: appreciation for the preparedness and actions of first responders and the opportunity to help through the American Red Cross; encouragement for the survivors who continue to struggle with physical and emotional after effects of such a traumatic experience; and hope that our infrastructure is being updated and maintained so this doesn’t happen again.
As family members arrived at the scene looking for loved ones, they were escorted to the hotel to share their story and concerns with a counselor and wait for information. Mostly these were people who knew their loved ones crossed the bridge about that time, generally their usual commute. Or if someone didn’t come home when expected, their family was worried thinking they had been on the bridge.
One by one news arrived that a loved one was safe. Often it was by chance, they stayed at work late, stopped for a beer with a friend, took a different route either hearing the news or by chance. Some who were on the bridge were rescued safely, some taken in ambulances to hospitals, some bodies recovered. People were escorted out of the Family Assistance Center by their counselor, some greatly relieved, some in tears or grief. Over the course of the evening our clients became fewer until there was just one woman left. The divers finally located her husband, at the bottom of the river, a large piece of the bridge on top of him.
It still affects me to think of what she and others went through that night. It was not possible to save every life, but our emergency responders found every single person. The Red Cross continued to support families and first responders for many weeks after the bridge collapse.