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10 years later, Trauma Center physicians and nurses reflect on I-35W bridge collapse

The University of Minnesota Medical Center's Trauma Center was one month old when the I-35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007. A decade after the disaster, members of the trauma care team share reflections from that day.
The I-35W bridge collapse on Aug. 1, 2007, was a defining moment for the University of Minnesota Health Trauma Center. As we remember the victims of the collapse on the 10th anniversary, members of our trauma team reflect on that day and its significance for the trauma program.

At 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W collapsed without warning, plunging more than 100 people down into the Mississippi River or trapping them in wreckage along the steep river banks.

Within minutes, the doctors, surgeons and care providers of the University of Minnesota Medical Center’s Trauma Center were alerted and began preparing for a mass casualty event. The medical center’s East Bank campus is the closest hospital facility to the north side of the interstate bridge. Because of its proximity to the site, the medical center received 25 bridge collapse patients,  many of whom arrived in cars, on the back of pickup trucks or on foot. All were treated by Trauma Center staff and other hospital care providers.

The Trauma Center was only one month old at the time of the bridge collapse, and in many ways the event became a defining moment for the program, according to many of the care providers who helped treat bridge collapse victims that day. The lessons learned following the bridge collapse continue to inform how trauma experts at University of Minnesota Medical Center care for patients today.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the collapse, our Trauma Center surgeons, nurses and staff took time to reflect on the disaster and its significance. Here are their stories:

Clinical Staff Nurse Sandra Fonkert, RN, MSN, CEN, CPEN, CTRN
"When we turned on the TV, we saw a view from a helicopter that was filming the I-35W bridge collapse. That was my first ‘Oh my God’ moment. The hospital is very close to the bridge, and we knew to expect a large amount of patients. We were getting our supplies and equipment ready when crowds of disaster victims began appearing at the back entrance of the emergency department. They arrived by car, by minivan—even in the back of pickup trucks—having been rescued from the water by Good Samaritans or firefighters. Much later, after the collapse, I became a disaster management advocate, instructor and lecturer. I share this story with others to explain why it is necessary to always be prepared for anything."

Assistant Nurse Manager Erica Myking, RN, BSN CEN
"There’s a patient I helped take care of that day who I’ll never forget. She was not involved in the I-35W bridge collapse. She was in our emergency before the bridge went down and she had a broken arm. When we found out the bridge had collapsed, we began working to clear out the emergency room [to create space for the victims]. This woman needed a cast, but she tearfully kept saying, ‘I don’t need to be here, someone else needs this bed,’ while she was literally holding her broken arm on a pillow. To me, that really showed how much people cared. They wanted to make sure the victims of the bridge collapse were taken care of as best as we could.”

Pediatric Emergency Medicine Physician Ron Furnival, MD
"We were the closest hospital on the east side of the river. We had just become a trauma center and [the I-35W bridge collapse] was really a big test of our program. It would have been overwhelming for any one individual, but with organization and with teamwork it was really impressive how the hospital came together. We received a large number of patients; only Hennepin County Medical Center matched us in volume. A number of those patients went to the operating room and needed acute care surgery. It gelled the program for the first time that we could do this and do it well. I think what we did at that time was really remarkable.”

Critical Care Surgeon Kaysie Banton, MD
"The I-35W bridge collapse really did define our program. Looking back, it was a horrible time for every hospital in the Twin Cities. But everybody was prepared. That’s part of being a trauma center; you’re prepared for disaster, you’re prepared all the wrong things to happen. Our care providers fell back on their training and knew exactly what to do when groups of people kept walking through the door. Not every program has had the opportunity to demonstrate what they do and how well they do it, but we had that from day one."

Trauma Program Manager Kelly Simon, RN, BSN, TCRN, CEN, PHN
"The I-35W bridge collapse signifies so much for many. Most people remember where they were the exact moment they heard the news. While the collapse was extremely frightening and harrowing for all involved, I feel proud that our team stepped up to serve the community during a devastating event that occurred literally right outside our doors just weeks after our trauma program was established." 

Learn more about the University of Minnesota Health Trauma Center, a Level II trauma program.