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Facing Down The Fears Of The I-35W Bridge Collapse

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Saiku Kanneh has quite a story to tell. It’s about what happened on the bridge, what happened when he went back, and it wouldn’t be possible without the story itself.

Kanneh was one of the children on the bus, the very bus that teetered on the edge when the I-35W bridge went down five years ago.

Sixty-one kids and staff members from Waite House Community Center were coming back from a field trip when their world turned upside down.

“We were sitting on the grass,” he said. “Watching everybody get carried off the bridge. Some people had broken arms and stuff. It was pretty bad.”

Kanneh was 11. His back was injured, but like the rest of the kids on that bus, he lived. And he healed, both physically and mentally, until the first anniversary approached.

“Nightmares of like being back where it was,” he said. “Like when it happened, just being there, in the bus again.”

As the new bridge was built, and ready to reopen, his wounds were also reopened. His fears were triggered.

“His avoidance symptoms were really significant,” said Dr. David Hong, a trauma therapist at Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis. “He didn’t want to go back to that place, to cross the new bridge.”

Hong began helping Saiku start writing the story of the collapse as part of Kanneh’s therapy.

“In the writing of the story, kids end up facing the memories that disturb them most,” Hong said.

It’s called a trauma narrative, a key component of TF-CBT, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy. They worked on the story for months, slowly adding more details as Kanneh became more comfortable.

“Each repetition is another little step forward,” Hong said. “And each rep is a little bit less anxiety.”

But Kanneh still couldn’t handle his fears — he needed another layer of therapy.

“We got in my car, and what we would do every session, is go nearer and nearer to the bridge,” Hong said.

“We kind of eased into it,” Kanneh said. “Starting off far away.”

They looked at the scene from the Stone Arch Bridge, then though the observation binoculars. They moved closer, to look at it from the 10th Street Bridge. The duo drove under it on West River Road, and then, when Kanneh was ready, after weeks of work, drove over the top.

“The whole fear itself is, ‘What if it falls again, what if it falls again,’” Kanneh said. “And when you go over it, and nothing happens, then you’re like, ‘I have nothing to worry about.'”

“It was almost surprise,” said Hong, describing Kanneh’s first ride over the bridge. “And then it was done, and he could move on.”

They turned around and went back again, just to be sure, but in one afternoon, months of work were complete. A scared 12-year-old was reassured, and his confidence started to emerge.

Now 16, Kanneh and his mother can look ahead to Wednesday’s anniversary without fear, thanks to the power of his story, and the hard work he did with his therapist.

“I’m really grateful to him,” Kanneh said. “Because I feel like if I didn’t talk to him, or if I never had the sessions with him, then I’d still be holding all of that in.”

Kanneh will start his junior year in high school this fall, and he’s already looking forward to college. He’s thinking of studying psychology.

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