The collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis was awful, but it could have been much worse. There would have been many more deaths if not for the bravery of the citizens, cops, firefighters, and other rescue workers that crawled, climbed, and jumped into the twisted wreckage. That response, to put their own lives at risk in order to save a stranger, reminded me of why I became a cop: To Protect and Serve. The "serve" part being a necessary part of the job, while the "PROTECT!" mandate inspired me to choose policing over the job of paramedic. It was not an easy choice, since I had been an emergency room medic in the USAF for the two years prior. Now, after 30 years or so of policing, police training, U.S. Marshals Service, and federal building security, I still think I made the right choice.
When the bridge collapsed, I was in middle of teaching a college class. My first thought was, "Why wasn't I there to help?" For a fleeting instant my gut reaction was to jump in my car and race to the scene. This was an impossible idea since I was at least 45 minutes away, in the middle of a class, and I knew there would be no way to even get close to the scene by then. I also knew that the city would respond, like it always did, with heroic efforts by citizens and emergency services people alike. I don't know who said it first, but it is true that "We are often at our best when things are at their worst." That is the true nature of the human species and I knew there would be people doing whatever they could at the scene. And I knew I had to stay where I was.
Several days after the disaster, my students were having a lively discussion about police discretion and traffic control on our highways. One student commented that every time she commits a minor violation the cops always seem to be right behind her, but when she sees people driving like maniacs on the freeway there is never a cop around. She said "It's so frustrating. They're never around when you need them." My wife would call this moment in time a "teaching moment." My favorite teacher, Bill Mamel, would call this an "Aha!" moment. It was, in fact, a point in time when my mind was flooded with scenes of murder, senseless vehicle fatalities, and vicious domestic violence that may have been prevented if only someone, like a cop, had been in the right place at the right time to stop it.
I paused for a moment and then I stopped the discussion and directed my comments to the student expressing her frustration and I told her "You need to know that the frustration you feel is the same frustration the cops feel when they realize that they can't be in the right place at the right time, each and every time they should be. Cops want to protect; it just can't always be done." I went on to tell the class about my first reaction to the bridge collapse. I told them about seeing Peter Erickson, a retired paramedic, at the grocery store and our shared sense of "need to be there to help/grateful that we're not."
I must have come across pretty strong with the student, because the mood of the class changed and the discussions were a lot more subdued after that. I got the feeling that they were afraid of what I would say next.
There is a phenomenon called "survivors guilt" that describes the emotions survivors feel when others around them die, and they survive. There is another type of guilt that isn't expressed very often, but is very real. I call it "Should have been there guilt." Cops occasionally talk about it, but most of the time they talk around it with comments like "That lucky bastard is always in the right place at the right time." We're jealous and frustrated, even when we know that being in the right place at the right time means placing ourselves in extreme danger. Occasionally, we all have a shift where we seem to be right where we're needed, but not that often. All too often we go home with the leftover feelings of guilt and frustration because we weren't there; we could have been there; we wanted to be there, and we weren't.
Every day, there is another article in the StarTribune and another story on the local news channels about the bridge, the heroes, the victims, and the aftermath.
And every day, I wish I could have been there.