Men still recovering after surviving bridge collapse: Willmar family members were working on 35W bridge Aug. 1

WILLMAR -- For four years, Hector Bustos Peralta and his nephew Luis DelReal worked on road paving crews for Progressive Contractors Inc. Then they were reassigned for a while last summer because a bridge repair crew needed some extra help. Aug. ...

WILLMAR -- For four years, Hector Bustos Peralta and his nephew Luis DelReal worked on road paving crews for Progressive Contractors Inc.

Then they were reassigned for a while last summer because a bridge repair crew needed some extra help.

Aug. 1 was to be their last day working on the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

Hector, 42, was seriously injured when the bridge collapsed shortly after 6 p.m. that day. Thirteen people died in the collapse, including one of their co-workers from PCI. More than 100 were injured.

Along with many other injuries, Hector took a hard hit to the head and was unconscious after the accident. He doesn't remember anything that happened just before the collapse or in the month after.


Luis, 24, was not hurt as badly, and he remembers it all -- the screaming, the blood, how it felt to see his uncle's body under the debris and wonder if he was dead.

Four months after the collapse, the two Willmar men are home and are recovering from their injuries, but it will be a long process for both.

Hector and his wife, Abigail, whose primary language is Spanish, described his injuries this week through interpreter Maria Diaz. Hector was just back from a doctor's appointment and sat on their living room couch, cradling his cane in his hands.

Hector was in the hospital for two months after his nephew and co-workers pulled him from the debris at the bottom of a slanted section of concrete.

Luis used his cell phone to call Abigail from the bridge site, to tell her what had happened and that Hector was hurt. The couple was separated at the time, but Abigail got into the car immediately and started driving. She had never driven to Minneapolis before.

Broken bones and complications

When she first saw Hector, every part of him was swollen, Abigail said. Though he was unconscious, his eyes were open and full of dust.

Hector had broken ribs and a broken collarbone on his left side, and his spleen had to be removed. Part of his left ear was gone. Ligaments in his right knee were damaged. He had a compound fracture of his left arm.


The surgery to repair his body left him with a scar that runs the length of his torso.

For the first month, Hector didn't recognize anyone, and strong medications caused hallucinations. That time was some of the most difficult for their four children -- Hector Jr., 18; Nestor, 16; Orly, 15; and Arnold, 12.

One son's comment was, "I want to see him, but I don't want to see him like that."

There were complications from his injuries. He had pneumonia and an unexplained fever. He developed blood clots and the blood flowing to his heart had to be filtered.

The first month he spent at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, the second at Regency Hospital in Apple Valley.

When Hector first came home, he was so weak that he could not bathe alone or dress himself. A visiting nurse helped him, and Abigail was there.

"It was hard even to open a bottle of water," he said.

Now, he said, he feels stronger every day. He showers and dresses on his own. He goes to physical therapy three times a week and still takes drugs to prevent blood clots and to settle an irregular heartbeat he developed.


Sometimes, they said, it seems that the whole day is planned around his medication schedule and doctor's appointments.

Before the collapse, he'd never been in the hospital, never had surgery. "I thank God for letting me live," he said. "A lot of people thought that I wasn't going to make it."

'I thought it was a crash'

Luis said he remembers hearing a loud noise. "I thought it was a crash," he said. He turned to look, and he saw the bridge cracking. The cracks were forming quickly, and they were getting closer.

"All of a sudden, we were on the floor," he said. He landed hard on his knees on the concrete and hurt his back when the bridge fell.

The road section they were on was slanted, "like a slide," he said. The concrete surface, milled rough for repaving, is probably what kept him from sliding down to the bottom, he said.

At first he couldn't find Hector, but then he saw him, motionless, at the bottom of the "slide."

"I didn't know what to expect when I saw my uncle down there," Luis said. "I tried to wake him up, but he didn't move."


Hector woke up and complained of pain, Luis said. Hector has no memory of it.

Both men have been told by their employer that the company will find them work to do when they feel up to it.

"I told them already I'm not working bridges no more," Luis said. "I get nervous when I'm driving on a bridge." Parking ramps bother him, too.

Luis is still undergoing therapy for his back injury, and he has problems with his mood.

When he and his wife went grocery shopping recently, he felt himself suddenly getting really angry, he said, and he had to tell her that he just couldn't talk to anyone for a while.

"I've been having a lot of problems," he said. "Sometimes I get really stressed out for no reason, and I wasn't like that."

Both men said they felt the bridge move in the week before it fell. Hector recalls putting his hand on the railing the first day he worked on the bridge and wondered for a fleeting moment if it might fall down.

Hard times


Because they were working when the bridge fell, workers' compensation has taken care of their medical bills. But things have been difficult for the family since the collapse.

Abigail took three months off from her job at Jennie-O Turkey Store through the federal Family Medical Leave Act. She said she has cared for her estranged husband because she felt in her heart it was what she needed to do.

But she had no paycheck during her leave, and it wasn't always easy to keep up with the basic household expenses, she said.

On Thursday, the state approved a release of emergency funds to assist survivors and their families with lost wages.

The American Red Cross has helped the family in many ways, Abigail said.

From the first night, volunteers were always ready with food and other support. When Abigail needed school supplies for the children last fall, the Red Cross stepped in. A representative still checks in regularly to ask what they need.

Their neighbors in southeast Willmar have helped with the children, but most people in Willmar have not known about the family's situation.

A cousin asked people at St. Mary's Church to pray for someone who was on the bridge that day, but most people didn't know they were praying for Hector, Abigail said. They recently ran into a friend who was surprised to see Hector using a cane and asked what had happened to him.


Diaz, a community organizer for the Ra?ces Project, said she had been surprised to hear about the family only recently. "I feel bad that, as a community, we didn't know," she said.

Dancing in Mexico

Hector, who loves to dance, hopes to be dancing with his family in Mexico on New Year's Eve. He doesn't know yet whether he'll be up to traveling by then.

His mother was seriously ill and hospitalized in Mexico City at the time of the collapse. The family told her only that he wasn't visiting because he had been in an accident at work.

Hector's family doesn't have visas to visit him here, so he is anxious to travel there to show them how much he has recovered.

This experience has changed his life and his faith, he said. "Without God, we're really nobody."

He sees his recovery as an opportunity to improve his lifestyle, too.

"The best thing is to have good health," he said. "After the accident, I really see life in a different way; I feel like I was born again."

He smiled at Abigail and said, "I'm going to prove to her that family is more important than before."

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