On the day the I-35W bridge collapsed, Stacy Bengs was a photojournalism student at the University of Minnesota. She lived in an apartment four blocks from the bridge. Around dinner time, she and her roommates heard a noise, but with all the recent construction in the area, they ignored it.
Then Bengs’ phone rang. The caller told her that the I-35W bridge had fallen into the Mississippi River. Bengs grabbed her camera and headed in that direction where she ran into another student photographer.
“He and I made our way down until we were standing on the collapsed bridge,” Bengs said. “We saw people being pulled out of the wreckage on pieces of plywood that were on the bridge from the road construction. It was kind of surreal to see all of that.”
As one of the first people to arrive, Bengs was able to walk right into the middle of the scene. Soon after, officials put up warning tape and moved Bengs and the others who had gathered there farther away. She stayed nearby for four hours, moving around and shooting photos the whole time. Then she went to the university newspaper office.
She and other photographers were putting their photos online, when they received a message from the Associated Press in Washington, D.C., asking them to post photos on the AP wire. It was an energizing time for a group of student journalists.
Remembering the event
Thirteen years later, Bengs is still a little stunned when she remembers that August evening when she was frontline to a worldwide news event.
“You don’t forget it,” she said. “I made some split-second decisions, and I’m glad I made the decisions I did. I just went with my instincts. You are a journalist, so you go.”
Now, as a married mother of three children, she said her decisions might be different, but on that evening, her knowledge of the area, of a shortcut down the hill to the edge of the river, put her in position to get first-hand photos of the disaster.
“At the time, you don’t realize the massive scale of the event,” Bengs said. “I remember every time I put my camera down, I would get a sick feeling, so I kept my camera up, like it was a barrier between me and what was actually happening. I remember thinking it looked like a horror movie.”
Bengs, who graduated from Red Wing High School and worked as a photographer and reporter for the Republican Eagle, said she grew up thinking that being a photographer for National Geographic magazine would be her dream job. While she didn’t do that, she is still involved in photography through her wedding photography business in Eau Claire, Wis., and a continued connection with the Associated Press shooting sports photography of the Twins, Lynx, Timberwolves, and Wild.
Remembering the night of the I-35 bridge collapse, Bengs said the events were “like a perfect storm as far as me getting down there and getting those pictures.”