Today marks the fourth anniversary of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis and a Remembrance Garden near the bridge will be dedicated this afternoon. Thirteen people were killed and 145 injured when the bridge fell into the Mississippi River on August 1, taking with it cars, trucks and the the public’s sense of security. It was an unbelievable scene and for weeks after, everyone in the Twin Cities told stories of someone they knew who was killed or who had just driven over the bridge before it fell in. Why those people?
My book club just read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a fictional story (actually a moral fable) set in 1714 about when “the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” I wish that I had known about this book four years ago when our tragedy happened, so similar are Wilder’s words to those we spoke at the time. He says, “The moment a Peruvian heard of the accident he signed himself and made a mental calculation as to how recently he had crossed by it and how soon he had intended crossing by it again. People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf.” A Franciscan missionary, Brother Juniper, asks, “Why did this happen to those five?”
In his forward to the book, Russell Banks says, “The underlying assumption of the novel is that any one of us could have been on that bridge when it collapsed and threw five people into the abyss.” Why those people? It’s a question we ask whenever such a tragedy arises and Banks suggests comparison with the events of 9/11. Prime Minister Tony Blair read the closing sentences of The Bridge of San Luis Rey at a memorial service for victims of the World Trade Center attack:
But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made the. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”