Lessons Learned from the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse
An interview with Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack
NFPA Journal® online exclusive, September 2007
By Lisa Nadile
On August 1, when the Interstate 35W bridge on the Minneapolis West Parkway collapsed, Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack was running errands with his daughter. Elizabeth received an unexpected high-speed ride that day, but her father’s speedy arrival and quick action along with the rest of the Minneapolis Fire Department, Henepin County Sheriff’s Department, Minneapolis Police Department, and Henepin County EMS proved to be a model example of NIMS (National Incident Management System) and ICS (Incident Command System) implementation, Homeland Security disaster planning, and common-sense-based management of chaos.
In the end, 13 people died and about 100 were injured, but many who viewed the disaster, which happened at the height of rush hour, said it was a miracle that number wasn't much higher, according to Chief Clack.
The disaster was extremely complex. Nearly the bridge’s entire span, 458 feet (140 meters) of an 8-lane highway, dropped about 64 feet (20 meters) into the Mississippi River, landing flat, or “pancaking,” as one witness said. As many as 50 vehicles formed a dangerous morass of twisted metal, leaking gas, and oil; two vehicles were on fire. The river’s strong currents swirled around sharp metal, mixing silt with wreckage and leaking gas and oil. Nearby, a train was hit by a falling piece bridge span and two cars were leaking unknown and possible hazardous fluids. Boats on the river were near the scene and moved to help, exposing their passengers to floating wreckage and an unstable crime scene.
People began crawling out of cars, seeking to escape the chaos. A school bus full of children had narrowly avoided the drop.
The first responders arrived (the police followed immediately by Minneapolis firefighters) and with the help of civilians got to work, helping people out of their cars and getting away from the wreckage safely. They set up a staging area on each side of the bridge and triaged and treated those rescued. One Minneapolis firefighter brought scuba gear and dove into the river, cutting an unconscious woman free of her seatbelt from her submerged car.
The overall success of the rescue operation boils down to a systematic elimination of as many unknown variables as possible before a disaster occurs. Most importantly, Chief Clack made sure he would know the people responding to any disaster, and that he would know them very well.
“We have a really good relationship between agencies in
Taking the time to get to know the people manning the other agencies means you can manage an incident with their strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities in mind, and these other agencies knew the Minneapolis Fire Department just as well.
“Everyone just started doing what they were trained to do. There wasn’t a lot of coordination needed. The Sheriff got into the river [and started rescue operations there], Fire and Police were evacuating people off the bridge, and the Highway Patrol were securing the roads along with Minneapolis Police and the Sheriff’s Department,” Chief Clack says. There was also a great response from the Henepin County Medical Center's EMS, who called their resources in and tapped their close relationships with other nearby paramedics, he says.
A system practiced, but never used
The collapse of the 35W bridge meant that a local emergency system begun in 1982 and modified in response to 9/11 was finally implemented. In 2002, city government officials and many department heads attended disaster-training exercises at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Mount Weather, Virginia, Emergency OperationsCenter. The attendees learned how to set up and use an emergency operations center within the ICS. They worked with disaster scenarios that included large fires, hazardous materials spills, floods, and a tornado. It was these exercises that Chief Clack cites as most beneficial.
“They put us through scenarios and we had to react to them in a controlled environment. That got us all on the same page with what each role would be in a real emergency, Clack says. After this training Minneapolis did a number of tabletop exercises and full-scale drills downtown, including one drill that involved enough emergency response agencies to fill a convention center, says Chief Clack.
NFPA also publishes standards that pertain to emergency response: NFPA 1561, Emergency Services Incident Management System; NFPA 1620, Recommended Practice for Pre-Incident Planning; and NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents.
Despite extraordinary preparation, no two incidents are the same and there is nothing like an actual event to reveal areas that need improvement, Clack says. A couple weeks after the bridge collapse, Chief Clack who was the Unified Incident Commander on the scene, and Assistant Chief John Fruetel, who was the Fire Incident Commander, met with his department heads to discuss the response to the incident and create After-Action Reports. These reports are used to highlight “points of stress” in the operation and are used as a basis for creating or revising standard operating procedures. One point of stress was revealed right at the beginning of the incident.
It is a firefighter’s instinct that if there is a call for help, he or she responds like a racehorse out the starting gate. But one lesson Chief Clack mentions as most important is planning the equipment and staff that will stay behind to be ready for other incidents that will occur. Making those decisions and naming those firefighters who will stay behind isn’t easy, but must be done to protect the city, even in the midst of a disaster.
“The [Deputy Chief] called for all available resources and so dispatch sent every fire truck in the city. I heard that and I called in and asked each district to hold back one of their engines, so our city would still be protected.” Four of the city’s 26 engines stayed behind, while the rest responded to the bridge, Clack said.
Accountability within the ICS was also an area that needed attention, he says. ICS defines accountability as involving the following principles:
“We realized we didn’t know who was operating on the hot zone, which was on the bridge and in the water, and what their training was,” Chief Clack says. When Assistant Chief John Fruetel realized this, after about an hour he pulled everyone off the bridge for a “Check-In.” Then he sent back only the people with the appropriate training, which were those with collapsed rescue and swift water training.
Some very difficult decisions were also made as the rescue plan took shape. Initially, all the help from civilians was great, says Chief Clack, but soon their lack of communications equipment and training became an issue. Taking them off the bridge was necessary. The commanders also reevaluated the state of the hot zone, and darkness and water currents required them to suspend rescue at midnight that first night. Evaluating the risk of a secondary collapse was also critical and rescue began to draw on the expertise of the city’s structural engineers early the next day.
Chief Clack credits this deliberate approach as one of the main reasons why no responders were seriously injured, just a few cuts and a sprained ankle.
Let the caretakers help
One big assist was from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army who helped with the families as the evening progressed, Clack says. The Red Cross immediately took charge of the children rescued from the school bus. “That took a whole burden off the Incident Command System. We didn’t have 60 families looking for answers from us. We could delegate that to the Red Cross,” he says.
In addition, Minneapolis Fire Captain Mark Olsen is also a social worker. Initially the position was created for in-house firefighter and employee assistance, but that training has proven invaluable when working with the victims’ families, Clack says.
Olsen worked with his police counterpart, the fire and police chaplains, and the Red Cross to help the families cope during the rescue and recovery. They established a secure family assistance center where the families gathered, knowing they would be briefed with any news about their loved ones. The Medical Examiner found this central base very helpful in finding family members when necessary and breaking any difficult news in person. Chief Clack, Sheriff Staneck, the Mayor, and Chief Dolan spent a lot of time at the center getting to know the families, supporting them and getting information about the missing, which helped with the search.
Chief Clack instituted mandatory debriefings for all rescuers four days after the collapse. “People who were in the hot zone had a mandatory debriefing. Often people will decline to go to a debriefing because they don’t want to be seen as weak or be seen as needing it. We tell them they are going to go and that they are going to support the people who need it,” he says.
Devil is in the details
In the end it is the little things that can cause major points of stress in a disaster operation, says the Chief. Experience had taught Chief Clack to expect cell phones to be unreliable because of tower overload, so he avoided a communications problem on August 1; however, he plans to issue two cell phones, each from different carriers, for command staff to help mitigate this problem wherever possible. He found they needed to do a better job making sure spare apparatus were maintained as well-equipped as the go-to equipment.
One important focus for the department is to address the issues of accountability, starting with the initial call-in. Chief Clack and his staff are looking at ways to better organize who is called, communicating task and assignment information to those responders, and how best to stagger responders so that their and the department’s time is best served. The department is looking into a reverse 911 system that will call responders with specific instructions.
What is the most important lesson Chief Clack can impart? “Get to know everybody. And get along with everybody. We know of some cities where the police doesn’t get along with fire and that sort of thing and those relationships are so critical,” he says.
“But first of all, go meet somebody and have lunch. I’m on a first name basis with all these department heads, I can get a hold of them right now if I need to.”