Photographers record historic tragedy and people's compassion

Moments after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River Wednesday evening, Red Wing photojournalist Stacy Bengs was on the scene capturing images.

Moments after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River Wednesday evening, Red Wing photojournalist Stacy Bengs was on the scene capturing images.

Her pictures were not just of disaster, Bengs said, but also of compassion as people set aside their fear and pain to help others.

"It was terrifying," she said. "It looked like it was out of a disaster movie."

People were speechless, but the scene was far from silent.

"Some people were crying," Bengs said. Officers and paramedics shouted commands. Sirens blared as ambulances tried to make their way down to victims along the riverbank. Helicopters hovered.


Bengs focused on capturing it all with her cameras.

A journalism and art major in her senior year at the University of Minnesota, 21-year-old Bengs is photo editor at The Minnesota Daily. For about six years, she worked part time at the Republican Eagle.

Bengs and her roommate, Margaret Lawrence of Red Wing, were in the living room of their duplex on Sixth Street, overlooking I-35W. Multiple times each day they drive over the bridge, which is visible from the back porch.

"We were watching TV and deciding what to do for the night when there was a rumble," Bengs said.

"Did you feel that?" they asked each other, but they didn't think much of it because road construction had been a noisy presence in their lives.

Minutes later the editor of the Daily called to say the bridge had collapsed.

"I ran out the back door and saw it," Bengs said. "We could see the accordion effect, with part of the bridge sticking up."

Five minutes later she was at the Daily office picking up cameras and a photography intern, Matt Mead. "I gotta shoot this," she knew. "We booked it as fast as we could to the bridge."


Crowds were beginning to move toward this scene, trying to figure out what happened.

The two parked and ran to the 10th Avenue Bridge, Bengs said, which is parallel to the collapsed span.

"Smoke was everywhere. Flames were everywhere. Cars were everywhere. People were so confused. ... We looked down and we could see all the cars and the people at the bottom."

University police and fire crews were starting to arrive, along with some Minneapolis officers.

"We jumped over a fence and scrambled down a hill," Bengs said. As they began going down, they encountered one man, bloodied and dirty, who had climbed up the embankment from the wreckage below. "He was really out of it," she said, but he quickly left.

She and Mead scrambled under some railroad cars, part of a train that was partially crushed by the falling bridge. They worked their way down the steep bank to the chaos below.

"Emergency crews and passersby were carrying injured victims out on wooden boards, or planks, and lining them up side by side," she said.

"Everything happened so fast ...


"They kept pulling people out of the wreckage," and she watched as paramedics loaded people into the back of pickup trucks in gurneys to ship them out.

Bengs and Mead were the first photographer team at that location, she said.

"It was really hard to see people in such pain," but without medical training and with all the chaotic emotions, she felt it could have been overwhelming to the injured to "get in people's face."

Many people had climbed down the slope to do what they could. It was clear to her that other than helping carry victims up, the best thing they could do was get out of the paramedics' way.

"Injured people were comforting each other," she noticed.

Bengs and Mead made their away around a levee type structure to the water. She could see people above on the bridge, and parts of some cars in the water and under the collapsed span. Smoke billowed and she heard an explosion from what appeared to be tanker in the wreckage above her.

"I saw one rescue boat bring a guy out of the water."

Looking up, she saw that the Dinkytown bikeway connection bridge, which also spans the Mississippi, had become crowded with people.


Many tried to use their cell phones, including people who were trying to check on friends and relatives who could have been on the bridge, along with hundreds of university students and passersby.

Asked to leave that area, the photographers went up to the bikeway bridge and watched as helicopters began arriving to transport victims. Soon that area also was off limits.

"We just kept running," trying to find vantage points to record the scene. By 9:30 p.m., they were back at the Daily office, responding to requests from television stations and news services for pictures.

"We had the first victim shots," Bengs said.

"People might think it's unnecessary, or unethical," she said, "but you look back and you have pictures of citizens helping victims. To capture that is priceless."

It's important to document such experiences, Bengs added. "It's history. Some of the greatest pictures you remember are pictures of disasters. We don't take them for ourselves. We take them to show the goodness of people willing to help."

And, she said, officials are asking for images from different vantage points that may help them figure out what happened to the I-35W bridge.

"Hopefully, it can help," Bengs said.

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