Tomorrow at 6:05 p.m. Minnesota time, it will be exactly one year since the horrific collapse of the I-35W Bridge. It is a day and a moment when all Minnesotans will always remember where they were. They will remember what they were doing and they will remember what they heard and they will remember the pictures.
Minnesotans will even remember the weather and what it was like that day. Because, as if to symbolize what was to come, that warm, summer day started with clear skies, but by late afternoon, dark and ominous storm clouds had begun forming on the horizon with thunder rumbling in the distance and then, after the bridge collapsed, as if to provide relief for the rescuers, the storms retreated.
I know that many people across America will also remember that day and they will think about those who died and those who survived miraculously on that bridge.
I know my colleagues in the Senate will also remember. I want to thank each and every one of you for your tremendous sympathy and concern for the people of my state following the bridge collapse. And on behalf of all Minnesotans, I want to say how grateful we were for the bipartisan support in the days after that bridge collapse. The immediate funding for emergency relief and then the funding for the bridge so that bridge could be built again. This support from the United States Senate and the United States Congress helped lay the ground work for the fast and efficient reconstruction of the bridge.
In fact, a new bridge already spans the river. It is expected that by the end of the year, possibly within the next month or two, cars and trucks will again be crossing on the Mississippi River on the newly constructed 35W bridge. My home is only six blocks away. My home is only six blocks away, so my family and I look forward to once again driving across the 35W Bridge.
Not only in Congress, but across the nation, the catastrophic failure of this bridge provoked deep concern that it might not be an isolated incident, that there might be a broader problem with bridges across the country.
That's because a bridge should not fall down in the middle of America on the first day of August in 2007. Especially not an eight-lane interstate highway, especially not one of the most heavily traveled bridges in the state. Especially not on rush hour in the heart of a major metropolitan area.
But on August 1st of last year, the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis fell down and so tomorrow, one year later, we remember the 13 people who lost their lives on that bridge. And we remember the 145 people who were injured, many of them now living with serious and permanent injuries.
And tomorrow we also remember the many people, the police officers, the firefighters, the paramedics, the citizen bystanders who risked their lives by running toward that catastrophe and not away from it.
What I watched unfold that night, I was shocked and horrified, but as the evening wore on and the days went by, the entire world watched our state come together and I was proud to be a Minnesotan. We saw the heroes.
We saw them in the face of unimaginable circumstances. We saw the off-duty Minneapolis Police firefighter, Shanna Hansen, who grabbed her white jacket. She was off duty, but she among the first on the scene. She was tethered to a yellow life rope and she was in the midst of broken concrete and shards, and she swam from car to car in and out, in and out of that river searching for survivors.
We saw the school bus perched precariously on the falling bridge deck. I like to call it the miracle bus, perched on that falling bridge deck, just on the side ready to fall in. Inside were dozens of kids from a Minneapolis neighborhood who had been on a swimming field trip. Their bus was crossing the bridge when it collapsed. Thanks to the quick action of the responsible adults and kids themselves, they all survived. Now with the perspective of a year, what can we learn from this catastrophe? Well first, the enormous response to the bridge collapse demonstrated an impressive level of preparedness that should be a model for the nation. You can never feel good about a tragedy about this, but I do feel good about our police officers, our firefighters, our paramedics, and our first responders. Just look at the scene they came upon. This enormous eight-lane highway in the middle of the water and the storm above them and they dove into that water and literally saved hundreds of people.
Just this week the Hennepin County Medical Center, located only blocks from the bridge, was honored with a national award for an extraordinary response to this crisis. As a Hennepin County for eight years, I remember meeting with the sheriff, the police chief, and other officials as we plan and practice for disaster relief drills since 9/11. Even though no one imagined that a major bridge would collapse, the results of all that planning and preparation were evident on the night of August 1 where survivors were quickly rushed to the hospital. Second, we saw how important it was to move forward and build a new, safe bridge.
I’ll show you the bridge as it stands one year later. Again, it’s six blocks from my house, Madam President, so I’ve been able to watch its progress. You can see that this bridge now, the last piece actually was just added and it is spanning this huge river, the Mississippi river, an eight-lane highway. What happened? Well, in just three days the Senate voted to provide $250 million in emergency bridge construction funding. Representative Jim Oberstar led the way in the House and it was a bipartisan effort in the Senate, as Senator Coleman and I worked together on the relief. I personally want to thank Senator Durbin and Senator Patty Murray for assisting me with this.
I still remember the day when the Senate had voted for a billion in bridge reconstruction across the country but it didn't include the funding for our bridge, and I came in early and I sat at my desk and I said I wasn't going to leave until we got our amendment on to fund the reconstruction of this bridge. And the pages came in and the chaplain came in and the Senate was starting and Senator Durbin came and sat down next to me and he said, “Somehow I think you're here to do more than pray.” Well, he helped me and we got that amendment through and we got it passed. Approval of the funding came with remarkable speed and bipartisanship. Capitol Hill veterans tell us that it was a rare feat to get it done so quickly.
What else can we learn from this bridge? Well, third, we must still get to the bottom of why this enormous bridge fell into the middle of the Mississippi river. It didn't happen because of a barge or because of some kind of electrical storm or a tornado. It just fell down. Evidence is accumulating that the bridge's condition had been deteriorating for years and that it had been the subject of growing concern within the Minnesota Department of Transportation. This wasn't a bridge over troubled waters. This was a troubled bridge over waters. Still, as a former prosecutor, I know we must wait until all the facts and evidence are in before we reach a verdict. We will need to be patient as the investigation continues.
Mark Rosenker, the chairman of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, said just the other day that the NTSB investigation is nearing completion and that a final report should be ready for public release within a hundred days. Already the NTSB has publicly released a number of documents, photos, diagrams and other evidence that are part of their investigation. We know that this bridge had problems. We look forward to the NTSB report to give us definitive answers.
Finally, the bridge collapse in Minnesota has shown us that America needs to come to grips with the broader questions about our deteriorating infrastructure. The Minnesota bridge disaster shocked Americans into a realization of how important it is to have safe, strong, sound infrastructure.
As if we didn't know already, Minnesotans got a reminder a few months after the 35W bridge collapse because we learned that another bridge, a bridge of a similar design in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a major regional city in Central Minnesota, is now closed, that bridge, with plans to replace it. Unfortunately, it took a disaster to put this issue of infrastructure squarely on the agenda of this Congress.
According to the federal highway administration, more than 25% of the nation's 600,000 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That's more than 150,000 bridges. When 25% of all American bridges are in need of serious repair or replacement, it's time to act.
When we don't have enough money to build new bridges or repair the ones we already have, there is clearly a problem with our priorities, and when the American people question the integrity of the bridges they cross every day, we must act. Putting it all together with the bridge collapse in Minnesota, this should be a national call to action on infrastructure.
Senator Durbin and I recently introduced the National Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act. This legislation has already passed the House and we hope it will move quickly in the Senate. But this is just the start, and it is a good start, if the Senate will pass it and the President will sign it. And I’m hopeful that it will get us headed in the right direction.
In closing, I would note one final lesson. What happened a year ago in Minnesota reminds us that disasters can bring out the worst or the best in people. They can divide us or they can unite us. I believe the catastrophe, the collapse of the I-35W bridge brought out the very best of us in Minnesota and it united us. We joined together for the rescue, we joined together for the recovery and we joined together for the rebuilding.
I hope that going forward, the ultimate legacy of the 35W bridge collapse can be something positive for our nation. I hope it can bring out the best in all Americans and unite us as we address the pressing infrastructure issues facing our country.
So tomorrow, as we remember and as we grieve for the bridge victims and their families, let us also look ahead and move forward and take actions necessary to make sure that no bridge again, ever falls down in the middle of America. Thank you very much, Madam President.