|"The financial impact - I can't even begin to wrap my head around it," said Mercedes Gorden, a victim of the bridge collapse. (Craig Lassig/associated press)|
Victims fund eyed in bridge tragedy
Families, survivors ask Minn. to help with medical costs
MINNEAPOLIS - Almost three months after the deadly bridge collapse crushed her legs, Mercedes Gorden's medical bills are approaching $300,000.
Gorden and other survivors - along with relatives of two people who died in the collapse of the Interstate 35 west bridge - want state lawmakers to create a compensation fund modeled on the 9/11 fund Congress established after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
At a legislative hearing yesterday, several spoke about their long journey back from the Aug. 1 bridge disaster. The collapse killed 13 and injured about 100.
"The financial impact - I can't even begin to wrap my head around it," said Gorden, a 31-year-old Minneapolis woman who's had six operations and months of physical therapy.
The compensation fund proposed by Representative Ryan Winkler of the DemocraticFarmer-Labor Party would cover medical costs, economic losses, and pain and suffering. Collapse survivors who accepted a settlement from the fund would give up their right to sue the state.
Winkler said the fund is needed because Minnesota law caps the state's liability at $1 million per incident and $300,000 per individual. He and Representative Phyllis Kahn, also of the DFL Party, said the total cost would be a small percentage of the estimated bridge recovery and reconstruction costs, which are close to $400 million.
"One thing that we can do is make sure that failure of this bridge is not a financial burden on these individuals," Winkler said at a hearing of the House State Government Finance Committee at the American Red Cross in Minneapolis.
Action on the bill probably won't happen before the Legislature reconvenes in February, unless Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty calls a special session, which is unlikely.
Chris Messerly, a lawyer working with some victims, said a state compensation fund could help families much faster than suing. Litigation can't begin until federal investigators determine why the bridge fell, which could take up to two years.
He said medical bills for some individuals will easily top $1 million.
Testimony from survivors and family members outlined the human side of the losses.
Jennifer Holmes cried when she talked about her husband, Patrick, who died in the collapse. She said she notices his absence in little things, like doing laundry and errands, and in bigger issues, like saving for their two children's futures.
"I just want them to have what we would have provided together," she said.