I-35W: the Minneapolis Bridge Disaster – 2007

Gusset plates are not glamorous, but like the two-dollar O-ring seals on the space shuttle Challenger, you take them for granted at your peril. When NASA was still a gleam in John Kennedy’s eye, Eisenhower’s Interstate Defence Highway system was pushing its concrete capillaries across America. In 1967 Minnesota completed its contribution to Interstate 35 West (I-35W) with an eight-lane bridge across the river Mississippi in the heart of Minneapolis.

For 40 years it eased the city’s spectacular growth, and it was bumper-to-bumper with rush hour traffic at 18.05 on a hot summer’s evening when stalled drivers heard a screeching cacophony of groans and explosive snapping sounds.

The roadway reared up beneath them, twisting in midair – catapulting the helpless concertina of cars like smashed dominoes into the pillar of dust and debris roiling up from the gaping hole in front. Ribbons of highway hung by a single steel thread, tilted down and sideways into the fast-flowing Mississippi. Chunks of road dropped 35 m (110 ft) perfectly flat to the river banks, like concrete salvers still bearing cars and trucks with their stunned and shaken occupants. But where the three central spans – 330 m (988 ft) of I-35W’s 615 m (1,907 ft) total – crumpled in a mockery of their former geometric confidence, the ugly detritus of steel tresses was woven with human rag dolls, and trickled blood.

The collapse was Minnesota’s worst-ever man-made disaster. It inspired heroism and provoked a blizzard of lawsuits. A 15-month enquiry found that at the very bottom of the well of minor mishaps that had accumulated coincidentally into a disaster were 24 (out of many) gusset plates of the wrong size. They had not been spotted in the original review process, and had therefore been incorporated into I-35W’s design and original construction.

When: August 1 2007

Where: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Death toll: 13 dead and 145 Injured.

You should know: Surprisingly few people were hurt, it seems a pity that with providence on the survivors’ side for once, teams of lawyers are still pursuing class actions in the hope of squeezing someone – anyone – for a few bucks. Even though I-35W was a disastrous accident, lawyers are bent on finding someone to blame.

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devastating

1 Comment

  1. Nick Reply

    As a Minnesotan when this disaster happened. One thing I remember clearly was the school bus full of kids that mere seconds earlier or later would have plunged them into the water. As if by an act of God’s grace, the bus stayed secure on a piece of the bridge that did not fall all the way.

    A story of the bus occupant’s heroism can be found here. http://www.startribune.com/america-celebrates-another-i-35w-hero/41795152/

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