For the fighters

A new exhibit shows what the collapse of the I-35W bridge was like for the firefighters.

Gail Baerg from Brooklyn Park reaches the end of “81 Minutes: After the Bridge Collapsed” exhibit Sunday at the Firefighters Hall and Museum in Northeast Minneapolis. The exhibit takes visitors from minute 0 to 81 following the collapse of the I-35W bridge five years ago.

Marisa Wojcik

Gail Baerg from Brooklyn Park reaches the end of “81 Minutes: After the Bridge Collapsed” exhibit Sunday at the Firefighters Hall and Museum in Northeast Minneapolis. The exhibit takes visitors from minute 0 to 81 following the collapse of the I-35W bridge five years ago.

Sarah Harper

What: “81 Minutes: After the Bridge Collapsed”

When: Saturdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sundays, 12 p.m.-4 p.m.

Where: Firefighters Hall and Museum, 664 22nd Ave. NE, Minneapolis

Cost: Adults, $6; Seniors (65+), $5; Children (3-12), $3

 

Some of the firefighters who got the call that the I-35W bridge collapsed couldn’t believe what was happening. But it didn’t take any of them long to realize that it was a major disaster.

They responded to an ungodly situation with efficiency, thoroughness and compassion. They stabilized the scene and coordinated efforts to rescue survivors. In other words, they were heroes. But if you ask them, they’d say they were just doing their jobs.

You can read their account of the I-35W bridge collapse at a new exhibit at the Firefighters Hall and Museum in Northeast Minneapolis. It took them 81 minutes to get the final survivor out of the wreckage. All in all, 13 people diedAugust 1, 2007. But not a single soul died in the care of an emergency worker. “81 Minutes: After the Bridge Collapsed” tells the story of what happened — from the perspective of the firefighters.

The museum opened its doors in 2004, three years before the bridge collapse.

With a fire pole to slide down, tiny firefighting uniforms to try on and the chance to take a trip around the neighborhood in a fire truck, the museum is a little kid’s paradise. The “81 Minutes” exhibit is a decidedly somber departure, tucked into one corner of the large building.

The exhibit isn’t flashy — there aren’t an overwhelming amount of panels or interactive displays or photos, but there don’t need to be. It doesn’t take long at all to walk through the exhibit and read every word. Panels with big photos and short paragraphs tell the story of the bridge’s collapse with clarity and simplicity. There’s one large piece of wall in the middle covered in quotes from firefighters. It’s white and side-lit by blue, so it’s reminiscent of the bridge that was rebuilt in place of the collapsed one. The quotes, in glossy black capital letters, convey the strength and humility of the firefighters. Among them: “As soon as the tones go off, you’re working,” “We couldn’t have done anything better” and “You gotta play it by ear. No past practice.”

Created in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Star Tribune, the exhibit is thorough and impactful. The panels capture the chaos and confusion that racked the day. They also tell the story of hard workers — firefighters, yes, but also regular civilians, who dashed toward the bridge to help out instead of running away from the wreckage.

Before the official entrance of the exhibit, there’s a TV showing photographs that Star Tribune journalists took in the wake of the collapse. There’s also a computer set up to the interactive website, “13 Seconds in August” — a website you can visit on your own computer. Sitting in the museum, you can scroll over an image of the collapsed bridge. For each car, the Star Tribune team has composed a story. Many include videos.

Another part of the museum is dedicated to Minnesota disasters generally, with panels about drought, tornadoes, grasshopper plague, high waters and, of course, snow.

The impact of having two serious exhibits in one very fun museum is astounding: Together, the Disasters exhibit and the “81 Minutes” exhibit express a grand tradition of Minnesotan strength.