Native children survivors of Minneapolis bridge collapse

Brush with death had Phillips Community holding breath

by Christine Graef
Minneapolis, Minnesota (NFIC) 8-07

The Waite House Community Center confirmed that there were Native children among the 61 students on a school bus that nearly plunged into the river when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed across and into the Mississippi River August 1.

Just blocks from its destination off the ramp into the Phillips neighborhood in the south-side of Minneapolis, a yellow school bus filled with children passed over the center of the bridge just seconds before its middle section collapsed into the river.

The children were returning from a field trip at a water park when the sides of the bridge folded and left the bus trapped at the edge.

The jolt startled the youth, some who were singing a song in Spanish about an elephant. Others were quiet and half-asleep when they felt the bridge plunge from beneath them. Among them was 20-year-old Jeremy Hernandez, who is of American Indian descent and Waite House’s summer program gym coordinator. Startled into action, Hernandez leape over two rows of seats to kick open the back door. He rounded up everyone, calmed their cries and screaming and helped them off the bus and into a waiting ambulance. Fourteen were hospitalized for injuries but everyone survived.

Hernandez told the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. "You couldn't see the kids yet because of the dust. When the dust settled down, they were all screaming 'We're going to go in the river, we're going to go in the river.'

Phillips neighborhood has been the home to many Ojibway (Chippewa) families from the Red Lake, White Earth and northern reservations of Wisconsin and Minnesota for many years. You couldn't go far in the neighborhood without finding some Lakota, and HoChunk tribal members as well. The Waite Community House has hosted many Native American events over the years.

About 12 per cent of the population in Phillips is American Indian, compared with 2.2 percent in the whole of the city. Hispanic immigrants and East African refugees also make their home there. Operated by the non-profit Pillsbury United Communities to serve youth ages five to 17-years-old, the center’s hallways are lined with photos of American Indian pow wows, Hispanic Cinco de Mayo celebrations and girls in Hmong ceremonial dress.

Not far from where the bridge fell, the Native community has dubbed the region "Dinkytown" and area residents have said that after the fall, a search to account for several homeless people, included Native ones ensued. All were accounted for.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the collapse of the I-35W bridge was caused by structural weaknesses that DOT had identified last winter. DOT estimates it could take more than a year before a final report of the disaster is issued.

The school bus plummeted several levels, those on board said, as the roadway on which it was sitting dropped, cracked and bent, pitching the vehicle sideways. It came to a rest on the edge of the slab, its fall over the precipice arrested only by a bridge guardrail as a semi truck nearby exploded into flames.

The receptionist at the Waite Community House indicated that numerous reporters had been calling and refused to discuss any particular questions asked, while requesting that we not try to contact Hernandez because of the overwhelming number of interviews he had already conducted. Counselors where working with children at the Community House when News From Indian Country was able to reach the unidentified voice on the phone on August 7th.

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