Breaking boundaries: Some viewers of I-35W scene get more than an eyeful

Updated: August 20, 2007 - 7:39 am

Andrew Newton just wanted to get a better look at the fallen bridge.

“Mentally, we could say we were probably in the police area,” said Newton, 21, who wandered down to the river near the University of Minnesota with a friend around 8:30 p.m. Aug. 5. “But we didn’t have to cross any police tape to get where we were.”

That didn’t matter to police, who arrested Newton and 21-year-old John Roland for trespassing that night. Newton and Roland were among 16 people arrested for crossing the I-35W bridge collapse site perimeter during the first week after the disaster.

The site drew thousands of people from throughout Minnesota and beyond. After days of intense media coverage, many came expecting to find a better view. Some got too close trying.

As recovery efforts continue, the Minneapolis Police Department and Minnesota State Patrol are keeping a tight lid on what they are calling a “death scene.” But the city is working with the state and federal agencies involved in the collapse investigation and recovery efforts to create a public viewing area for the many people who continue to visit the site each day.

The perimeter created immediately after the collapse was several times larger than the existing secured zone, which was established about a week after the collapse. Boundaries used to stretch from the 3rd Avenue Bridge on the north to well south of the Washington Avenue Bridge and from Washington Avenue on the west bank to beyond University Avenue on the east bank. The river perimeter is still large, but the boundaries on land are much closer to the actual collapse site.

Minneapolis Police Department Spokeswoman Lt. Amelia Huffman said the initial perimeter needed to be large until the scope of the disaster could be determined.

“You make your perimeter big because that way you know you’ve got all the evidence you need and you’ve got the space to work,” Huffman said. “And you’re protecting the scene.”

Rescue and recovery teams needed a variety of places to stage their efforts during the first days following the disaster, she said. Plus, she said reducing a large perimeter is easier than expanding a small one.

An 8-foot-tall chain-link fence with numerous “no trespassing” signs was built around the reduced perimeter, which officials don’t expect to change in size any time soon. A combination of nine police officers and eight state troopers are stationed around the perimeter at all times and cameras were added at some locations.

Staffing the perimeter costs about $19,000 every 24 hours, according to the average overtime wages for police officers and state troopers. Huffman said federal or state aid might help pay for the staff.

Inspector Mike Martin of the Minneapolis Police Department said maintaining tight perimeter security is necessary to ensure the safety of the recovery team, the integrity of the investigation and the dignity of the families whose loved ones are still in the river. The penalty for crossing the perimeter varies depending on whether an individual accidentally or intentionally crossed it and how they act when confronted, Martin said.

Trespassing is a misdemeanor that would most likely result in a fine or possibly some jail time, Huffman said. But the moral consequences are greater, she said.

“This is a death scene,” she said. “This is essentially at this point an underwater graveyard and to violate the sanctity of that without a good reason is morally repugnant.”

Huffman said there has been much discussion at the city level about creating a public viewing zone.

Jeremy Hanson, spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the city is discussing the possibility with the other agencies involved with the collapse investigation and recovery effort. He said a viewing space would not only provide a place for people to see the site, it would help keep the investigation, recovery and rebuilding process open to the public.

“The collapse of this bridge has affected the entire city and the region,” he said. “It’s understandable why people would want to see it.”

Al Tesch, 67, and wife Connie, 66, were among the thousands of people who tried to view the collapse site during the first week in August. The couple, formerly from Minnesota, was in town from Mesa, Ariz. for a class reunion. They were trying to catch a glimpse near the Lock and Dam Visitor Center below the Stone Arch Bridge. They tried other vantage points with little success.

“I drove across a couple bridges and couldn’t see anything,” Al said. “I was surprised. I thought you could see more.”

Joe Diethelm, 53, and wife Priscilla Diethelm, 58, traveled 30 miles from Watertown, Minn. to view the bridge.

“I’ve been over that bridge so many times, you just take it for granted,” Joe said. “You don’t think that that could ever happen.”

He and his wife said they were expecting tight perimeter restrictions. They stopped at the corner of 11th Avenue and West River Parkway to ask Minneapolis police officer Marcus Benner where to get a good view.

Benner, who had worked perimeter security since the collapse, said he got a question from someone every couple minutes. But he hadn’t encountered anyone who intentionally crossed the perimeter or caused any trouble.

“People just want to get close,” he said. “They see it on the TV every two seconds. They want to see it with their own eyes.”

Sharon Carlson, 47, husband Neil Carlson, 48, and daughters Kristin Carlson, 13, and Jaime Carlson, 10, drove from Andover, Minn., to view the scene. They were able to see a sliver of the collapse site through the new chain-link fence erected near Father Hennepin Bluffs Park on the east side of the stone arch bridge. They thought they’d be able to get closer, but were still amazed by the little they saw.

“To see it with your own eyes instead of on television or in the newspaper, it’s just so much different,” Kristin said.

Newton also wanted to see the disaster for himself, but he spent a couple hours in jail for it.

“There was no place else to see it at the time,” he said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.