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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

An Accidental Community

On August 1, 2007 the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 and injuring 145. The bridge was one of Minnesota’s busiest, carrying 140,000 vehicles daily. The National Transportation Safety Board cited a design flaw as the likely cause of the collapse. While working as a graphics artist, Jane Friedmann, an investigative reporter at the Star Tribune, was asked to help identify the victims. There was no official information because the collapse was considered a potential crime scene and there were concerns among law enforcement about privacy rights.

For weeks Jane studied photographs and searched the internet for clues. When she found a license plate in a photograph, she would look up the owner in a state database. Sometimes there was only a partial license plate or the picture was blurry, so Jane had to narrow down the possibilities with make, model and color of the vehicle. Some clues were found in posts on social media pages like Myspace and Facebook.

Jane’s colleagues created a web page for the victims and their stories. A team of reporters and online professionals spent countless hours interviewing the survivors and their families. Five years later, the newspaper conducted follow up interviews. The web page has an interactive map of an aerial view of the bridge collapse. Users can click on the numbers next to the vehicles to read their story, and for some, watch a short video clip. View the website here:

Jane recounts, “What struck me as the project developed was how the victims really formed an accidental community. After all, who else could truly understand what they went through?”

Jane, with assists from her colleagues, was able to identify the victims in 78 of 84 non-construction vehicles that were on the bridge at the time of the collapse. For that the project was given a regional Emmy award, a national Headliners award, an Eppy award, a Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists award and awards from the Society of News Design.  

Courtney Wolf
University of Minnesota
Jour 3279
Blog Assignment