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Ross Macmillan sitting in his office

Ross Macmillan was almost home from his office on the West Bank when he heard--and then saw--the collapse of the I-35W bridge.

For U professor, bridge collapse hits close to home

By Rick Moore

August 7, 2007

From Ross Macmillan's 11th floor window in the Social Sciences Building on the West Bank, the Mississippi River seems to meander calmly below, framed by the Washington Avenue Bridge and the Weisman Art Museum on the left and the I-94 and Franklin Avenue bridges on the right.

Six days ago, his take on the river and one of its bridges was anything but peaceful or serene.

Macmillan, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, was one of the first on the scene when the I-35W bridge collapsed August 1. He had left work about 6 p.m., driven over the 10th Avenue Bridge (he would frequently take the I-35W bridge before the latest construction work began), looped back under the Interstate on 2nd Street S.E., and was approaching his apartment by the Stone Arch Bridge when he heard "this really loud kind of crash--it almost sounded like an explosion," Macmillan says.

He looked toward the river and could see that the bridge had buckled into a shape like an "M." Along with about a half dozen others, he immediately ran toward the site, and was joined by workers from the Metal-Matic warehouse on the way.

"You could see this white cloud of concrete dust coming up," Macmillan says. "You could feel it. I could feel the concrete dust in my lungs."

With a number of fallen cars and distraught people in sight, Macmillan and the others began aiding the injured in whatever ways they could. They talked with people down below and steered a man holding a cell phone toward two girls in need nearby. When a man in a wheelchair emerged from a blue van, another man assisted him across a span of the bridge to where Macmillan stood. "Four or five of us helped hoist the wheelchair off of the bridge and onto the service road," he says.

"The one thing I'm very glad for is that it's not as bad as [the media] initially said it was," Macmillan says. "I hope I never experience it again. And I hope all those [injured] people are okay."

Help arrived quickly from local police, including the University of Minnesota Police Department. "The response was very quick," he says, but it couldn't accommodate the sheer number of people needing assistance. So Macmillan stayed at the scene and spent about another hour helping to bring equipment to rescue workers who were on the river.

He helped carry a number of people on backboards to waiting ambulances, and the journey to and from the river was treacherous. "There were chunks of concrete," he says. "There wasn't a path or foothold or anything like that."

At one point Macmillan slipped off a slab of concrete and landed awkwardly with all his weight on one leg, suffering ligament damage to his left knee.

Despite the initial flurry of activity, he says, "there was a lot of standing around, too, just staring at stuff."

By 7 or 7:30 p.m., "hundreds and hundreds" of emergency personnel had arrived, Macmillan says. "By that point we were just getting in the way. They had a guy from the sheriff's department who was clearing everyone out [and away from the scene]."

So he retreated back to his apartment and, after a brief interview with a Star Tribune reporter, shut the door, with hundreds of gawkers gathered in front of his building.

He says he was surprised when the information he had given to the reporter appeared moments later in an online story about the bridge collapse. And as a result of that story, he was contacted by Fox TV--again, moments later--for the first of two phone interviews on his perspective of the tragedy.

One broadcaster went so far as to call Macmillan a hero--a tag he adamantly rejects. However, "there were some people who really did some amazing things," he says.

Macmillan notes that while many people were "sweating buckets" trying to get people out of the river, there were also "hundreds of people standing there taking pictures."

He paused for a second, apparently reflecting on the scene. "At the moment, [the river is] kind of a makeshift coffin for people, and there's a morbidness about it."

Macmillan currently wears a brace on his left knee to stabilize the ligaments he damaged last week.

During the aftermath of the bridge catastrophe, Macmillan moved--coincidentally--from his place by the Stone Arch Bridge to a new home in the Warehouse District, aided by a friend visiting from out of town.

"I haven't really thought much about it, to be honest," he says. "We just tried to move on as much as possible."

"The one thing I'm very glad for is that it's not as bad as [the media] initially said it was," he says. "I hope I never experience it again. And I hope all those [injured] people are okay."