35W Bridge Collapse Led To PTSD In Many Survivors

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Vietnam War made Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, common knowledge.

And on Aug. 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W Bridge collapse brought it to common folks.

That is when Lindsay Walz came as close to death as one could get.

“If anyone’s seen the movie ‘Final Destination’ … death comes to people who are supposed to die, and I felt like I was supposed to die,” Walz said.

She fell 120 feet from the bridge’s center span. Trapped in her submerged car, she miraculously survived.

Yet in her mind, death was her constant companion.

“Going to the hospital, I’m going to die. Leaving the hospital, being really in a car for the first time and being just like hypersensitive to everything,” she said.

lindsay walz 35W Bridge Collapse Led To PTSD In Many Survivors

Lindsay Walz (credit: CBS)

She was experiencing PTSD. She says she felt emotionally numb and withdrawn.

“For a long time in the first five years I talked about, I described myself as a zombie, a ghost, a robot,” Walz said.

Dr. John Sutherland with Allina Health says most people will deal with some sort of trauma in their lifetimes.

“Most people will have a natural recovery,” Sutherland said.

He has trained extensively in PTSD, and is program manager of addiction medicine at Mercy Hospital’s Unity campus.

He says that short-term cognitive behavioral therapies are the most effective treatment of PTSD cases.

Getting patients to talk about and confront their fears is key.

“It’s the people, we believe, that don’t confront or don’t get back into life that end up really having PTSD,” Sutherland said.

Patients often blame themselves, feel shame or guilt over what happened — as irrational as that might seem.

“A person who maybe says, ‘You know, I should ‘ve taken a different route,’ or, ‘I could have done more when the bridge collapsed,'” Sutherland said.

Walz had similar thoughts.

“It was like my body couldn’t handle the gravity of what had happened,” she said.

Woodbury attorney Billy Harper helped bridge victims get compensated. Paying for medical bills was just the start.

“Some of them recovered, some of them did not, some of them are still recovering,” Harper said.

There is a chunk of the mangled bridge beam, encased in a clear plastic box, in his office lobby. It might be seen as an icon to the weakness of steel to some visitors — but the strength of the human spirit.

“Some of the victims on the bridge have been able to restore some normality to their life, but it is always a lingering symptom that is harbored in the background,” Harper said.

It is often triggered by simple things, like crossing a bridge, hearing a noise or even stepping onto a deck.

“Any man-made structures were no longer something I could trust,” Walz said.

Tasks that most take for granted brought Walz fear.

“I was holding my breath in the shower, that was another manifestation of my trauma,” she said.

Harper saw and felt the effects of this trauma first-hand.

“They would dig their hands and fingernails into my arm as we went up in elevator because they were having flashbacks to that whole emotional experience,” he said.

Walz has fortunately confronted her fears and restored her life. She starting painting, and used a portion of her damage award to start a Minneapolis nonprofit called “courageous heARTS.” It is a drop-in art center that helps teens express their own emotions.

“The primary goal of trauma recovery is to get what’s happening inside out,” Walz said.

A decade later her anxieties are out and she can process what happened to her and so many others.

“It’s something that … can really trick you really quickly, and it can make you feel really unsafe in the world if you’re not attending to it,” she said.

And she is grateful for a recovery that has replaced PTSD with inner peace.

More from Bill Hudson

More From WCCO | CBS Minnesota

Good Question
Best Of Minnesota
Excellent Educator

Watch & Listen LIVE