Minneapolis Assistant Chief Speaks About Bridge Collapse at FRI

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It was the evening of Aug. 1 and Minneapolis Assistant Chief John Fruetel was returning into the city to catch a Twins game after concluding his shift just hours earlier.

He was on motorcycle alongside another assistant chief from a nearby department en route to the game when he felt his cell phone buzzing in his pocket.

He pulled over to answer the call.

"The bridge is down," the commanding officer told him.

IAFC opens FRI in Atlanta

"When I got the call I didn't know what to think," he told a full room at Fire-Rescue International in Atlanta on Aug. 23.

Since the mid-week collapse of the I-35 bridge that claimed 13 lives and injured close to 100 others is still under investigation, Fruetel could not talk specifically about certain details but did a good job of painting the scene.

"I don't want to speculate about some things," he said. "I just want to talk about the four- to six-hour period of initial response."

Fruetel would continue toward the bridge on his motorcycle and would ride the rest of the way to the scene in the chief's truck. He would immediately take over incident command duties.

At that point he began to take charge and set up command on the 10th Avenue Bridge, which sits parallel to I-35.

Soon a unified command center would be staged nearby conveniently across from the local American Red Cross building.

He said that what he saw initially put him in shock.

"I looked over that bridge and could not believe what I saw," he said. "No matter where I looked, there were snapshots of things people working on."

"It was like ants on a sugar log," he said. "People were everywhere."

The 29-year department member who was promoted to chief in January spent between 12 to 18 hours per day at the scene of the collapse following the incident.

He said that firefighters, EMTs and members of local law enforcement agencies were performing CPR, water rescues and vehicle extrication.

"They were so focused on their job that they weren't aware of the size and scope of the incident," he said.

Vehicles were in the water, people were in the water, there were various hazmat issues and concerns about downed power lines.

The hazmat issues occurred when the bridge collapsed on a rail car carrying unidentified chemicals. A nearby building also contained mercury.

"We also had a lot of vehicle fires, and they were more difficult to deal with," he said.

Within one hour and 55 minutes, Fruetel said responders transported over 50 victims from the bridge to local hospitals.

He also said by the end of the night, the department's rescue boats pulled close to 20 victims off of the bridge.

As far as rescuing those thrown in the water, he said all of them suffered back injuries and had to be taken to the hospital.

So many transports needed to be made that Fruetel said some victims were transported in the back of pickup trucks. The incident commander said there was no other choice.

In about three hours, Fruetel said all of the rescues were completed. "This event for us took less time than most three-alarm fires," he said.

The final count was about 93 people who were taken off the bridge. The number of people rescued and recovered from the water has not been released.

Today, everyone reported missing has been accounted before. The final missing person was recovered Monday, Aug. 20 at approximately 6:30 p.m. according to Fruetel.

He said every effort was made to find unreported victims as USAR teams went down into the crevasses created by the collapse.

Through the use of relatively new interoperable communications, Fruetel said he was able to communicate with not only members of his departments, but mutual aid departments as well.

"We have strong, strong mutual aid partnerships with a lot of neighboring communities," Fruetel said. "It's a must to being able to handle these types of incidents."

While communication was possible for responders, traditional signals were quickly jammed. Dispatch was inundated with over 200 phone calls in a matter of minutes and cell phones almost instantly went down, he said.

The commanding officer in charge before Fruetel made it to the scene and radioed in for help from mutual aid partners right after the collapse occurred. The response from other departments was almost too good.

The officer told the dispatcher "Send us everything," Fruetel said.

"If you ask for that stuff, it's going to come," he said.

While the aid was good, Fruetel said it actually got to the point where there were too many fire trucks on the scene.

Looking back on that day, he said that everything ran like clockwork, including interaction with law enforcement and federal agencies.

"There were no snafus," he said. "Three or four days into it we got tired, so it wasn't perfect, but it went very well."

"We didn't fight with the cops and they didn't fight with us," he said. "The egos were checked at the door.

"OSHA came in and kept us on the straight and narrow, but they weren't very intrusive."

At the outset of the incident, however, Fruetel said he encountered some difficulties.

At first it was difficult for the commander to split the incident scene into manageable divisions; but that eventually divisions were made with four battalion chiefs in each. That became a problem because it was almost his entire staff of officers.

When that occurred, he began to assign mutual aid chiefs. "At some point you just get blown up so (mutual aid) is really important."

In many cases, he said risk management became an issue, but that since it wasn't a normal response, things were handled differently.

"In terms of risk management, we all really pushed the envelope that night," he said. "You just had to let some stuff go a little because this was so outside the box."

He commended his firefighters and said they were focused at their job throughout until the job was done. "If you trust them, prepare them and train them; they'll be good to go."

Minneapolis Chief Jim Clack will be the keynote speaker at Firehouse Central and EMS Expo, Oct. 9 - 13, in Orlando.

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