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Survivors of Minn. bridge collapse push for compensation fund

AP Photos

By MARTIGA LOHN

Associated Press Writer

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Almost three months after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse crushed her legs, Mercedes Gorden said her medical bills are approaching $300,000 and growing.

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Gorden and other survivors — along with relatives of two who died in the collapse — want state lawmakers to create a compensation fund modeled on the 9/11 fund established by Congress after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Several spoke about their long journey back from the Aug. 1 bridge disaster at a legislative hearing in Minneapolis on Thursday. The collapse killed 13 and injured about 100.

"The financial impact — I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it," said Gorden, a 31-year-old Minneapolis woman whose immediate focus is getting back on her feet after six operations and months of physical therapy.

The disaster victim compensation fund proposed by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, would cover medical costs, economic losses and pain and suffering. Collapse survivors who accepted a settlement from the fund would give up their right to sue the state.

Winkler said the fund is needed because Minnesota law caps the state’s liability at $1 million per incident and $300,000 per individual. He and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the total cost would be a small percentage of the estimated bridge recovery and reconstruction costs, which are close to $400 million.

"One thing that we can do is make sure that failure of this bridge is not a financial burden on these individuals," Winkler said at a hearing of the House State Government Finance Committee at the American Red Cross in Minneapolis.

He added: "The needs are immediate and they are long-term."

Action on the bill probably won’t happen before the Legislature reconvenes in February, unless Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls a special session, which is unlikely.

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Chris Messerly, an attorney working with some victims, said a state compensation fund could help families financially much faster than suing. Litigation can’t even begin until federal investigators determine why the bridge fell, which could take up to two years.

He said medical bills for some individuals alone will easily top $1 million.

Testimony from survivors and family members outlined the human side of the losses.

Jennifer Holmes cried when she talked about her husband, Patrick Holmes, who died in the collapse. She said she notices his absence in little things, like doing laundry and errands, to bigger issues like saving for their two children’s future.

"I just want them to have what we would have provided together," she said.

Wearing a neck and back brace, Brad Coulter talked about escaping his vehicle with his two children and waiting for rescuers to free his wife, Paula Coulter, who sustained brain damage. Now, he said, she’s at a rehabilitation center learning how to walk again.

"She’s there to this day working hard to regain everything that was taken from her on Aug. 1," he said.

Other survivors said a compensation fund could never erase what happened, but might help them move on with their lives.

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"We didn’t ask to be on that bridge," said Bill Wagner, a UPS driver from Cottage Grove. "We were going on that bridge — it was supposed to be safe, but it wasn’t. We did more than fall down and go boom."

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Martiga Lohn can be reached at mlohn(at)ap.org

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