Those who were there: University student-rescuers respond to collapse site

EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IS THE FIRST ARTICLE IN A SERIES OF FOUR THAT INCLUDES THE STORIES OF PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCED THE BRIDGE COLLAPSE FIRSTHAND. FOR MORE STORIES FROM THOSE WHO WERE THERE, CHECK THE REST OF THIS WEEK'S PAPERS.

>Nicole Kopari & Missie Wayne,
fourth-year medical students

While residents and curious onlookers gathered near the Interstate 35W bridge collapse site wearing expressions of disbelief and fear, it was a different story for the rescuers who had little time to act shocked or scared.

For two fourth-year medical students, their role in the rescue effort was a combination of quick decision making sparked by an inherent nature to help others, all on top of a catastrophic scene more overwhelming in person than pictures could ever show.

Roommates Nicole Kopari and Missie Wayne were at home eating dinner when Wayne’s mother called to see if they were safe. Until that time, the two were unaware of the collapse and turned on the news, Kopari said.

“We saw the fire on the bridge,” she said. “I looked at Missie and said, ‘Should we go?’ “

Kopari and Wayne, clad in scrubs and tennis shoes, headed to the scene and spotted fellow medical student Heather Nelson , near the Metrodome. The two hitched a ride to the site with Nelson and looked for where they could help, Kopari said.

They rode in a rescue dingy across the river to the north side, where firefighters and police officers were pulling people from the rubble and laying them on the ground, Kopari said.

Wayne said they wanted to help in whatever way they could.

“We knew we could go check vitals, simple stuff that firemen wouldn’t have had to worry about,” she said. “If we can help, great. If not, we tried.”

Kopari estimated they helped approximately 10 people whose injuries ranged from back pain to broken bones.

One person at the scene was critically injured, and others required pain medicine and IVs, Kopari said.

After helping victims near the bridge, Kopari and Wayne checked with the American Red Cross and Hennepin County Medical Center to see if they needed extra help, Kopari said.

A woman at HCMC later informed them the critically injured patient was in better condition, Kopari said. There’s lots of hope for him, she added.

Deborah Powell , dean of the medical school, wrote in an e-mail that she was proud of the students’ actions.

“They dropped what they were doing to go help,” she wrote. “Based on their education and experiences in medical school, (they) were able to contribute to the team of people who stabilized and calmed the victims of the I-35W bridge tragedy until they could be transported to hospitals.”

Wayne said they feel honored by the attention their actions have attracted, but pointed out there were others involved.

“The heroes are the firemen and the EMTs and the police,” she said.

Kopari also praised the work of the other rescuers and insisted their own work paled in comparison.

“What we did was small, almost insignificant,” she said. “Really, the firefighters that were pulling people from the car were doing so much more than we did.”

When asked if the experience had affected their feelings toward their future careers in medicine, Kopari, an aspiring surgeon, and Wayne, who wants to go into pediatrics, felt confident and reassured.

“We’ve learned that not only did we go into the right field, but there are incredible people out there,” Kopari said. “In this tragedy there are so many miracles in it. My heart goes out to the families that have lost loved ones.”

“We hope the people in hospitals will get better soon,” Wayne said.