Americans have always loved a good conspiracy theory. These days that’s largely the product of post-September 11 suspicion combined with a Tom Clancy-saturated pop culture and general distrust of the people—Republican and Democrat alike—running our country. A lot of folks also seem to have a sort of primal sense that beneath every tragedy lurks some deeper mystery, obscured, of course, by a top-level cover-up that any ordinary person can uncover—provided he or she has the chutzpah to dig through enough liberal-biased reporting to unearth the truth.
Minnesotans are certainly not immune to such theorizing. In the days after the Interstate 35W bridge disaster, given the lack of any immediately plausible explanations from public figures and engineers, and the apparent lack of tangible evidence regarding a cause, a spate of alternate theories arose, on both the collapse and the aftermath. Some are more logical than others, but we’ll do our best to debunk each below.
Conspiracy: The series of sharp cracks some witnesses reported hearing just before the collapse, along with the angle at which the bridgefell, prove that the bridge was rigged with timed explosives or possibly thermite, a material theorists have focused on as the cause for the World Trade Center towers’ implosion.
Reality: There were sounds resembling explosions just before the bridge collapsed, and the video of it falling looked very much like a controlled demolition. But those sounds, as well as the way the bridge fell, are all consistent with a structural collapse, according to several experts who have analyzed the disaster— particularly for this particular bridge, which had an outdated design and little built-in redundancy.
MOLNAU (AND OTHERS) KNEW
Conspiracy: The construction on the bridge was not maintenance on the road deck (resurfacing and repair work), but undercover emergency repair to the structure of a failing bridge. Theorists point to four things.
One: MnDOT’s August 1 news release, which warned motorists to avoid I-35W that evening and the next because construction work would narrow it to two lanes.
Two: The bridge was in poor shape, according to several reports issued in recent years.
Three: The National Transportation Safety Board said within days that the collapse was related to problems on the bridge’s south end.
Four: Police kept spectators away from the bridge for several days.
This evidence, theorists contend, proves that MnDOT head and Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau knew that the bridge was in peril.
Reality: In light of recent evidence, this theory may not be quite as "out there" as we had imagined.
SOMALI DEATH COVER-UP
Conspiracy: Several dozen Somalis were killed in the bridge collapse and the Minneapolis police covered up their deaths.
Reality: Some Somalis were quoted as saying a number of people in the Somali community were missing (a rumor also circulated that a van or bus had been swept into the river), but refused to release any names. No one has been able to prove the stories, and it’s difficult to see who would benefit from any such cover-up.
THE MAN IN THE RED KAYAK
Conspiracy: Minneapolis police asked the media for help finding a kayaker who was near the bridge when it collapsed. The mystery man, some would believe, surely must have had inside information on the disaster, and might have played some role in the bridge’s collapse.
Reality: Not much is known about the man, though he isn’t much of a mystery: the Star Tribune reported he contacted police as soon as he learned they were looking for him.
JUST COUNT THE NUMBERS
Conspiracy: Assuming the “I” in I-35W equals a 1 (a stretch already), then 1+3+5 = 9. The bridge fell August 1, and August is the eighth month, so 1+8 = 9. Oh, and add the year, too: 2+0+0+7 = 9. From that unusual proliferation of 9s, according to some numerological enthusiasts, one might infer that disaster was imminent.
Reality: Psychologists and other clear-headed folk would be quick to remind these particular theorists that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. After all, I-35W includes several other bridges that cross other waterways (e.g. the Minnesota River). And couldn’t all these 9s apply to practically any tragedy—say, the Minnesota Twins losing that night to the Kansas City Royals, one of the worst teams in baseball? Still, we remain troubled by this additional observation: “I” is the ninth letter of the alphabet.
Conspiracy: An unidentified barge crashed into one of the bridge supports, critically weakening the structure.
Reality: Rescue workers and recovery crews found no evidence of a barge, and none were reported in the vicinity. Most barges go no farther north on the Mississippi River than St. Paul, the Twin Cities’ hub for river shipping (though the river’s head of navigation—that is, the farthest point north barges can travel—is several miles north of Minneapolis). Only a few travel the affected stretch of the Mississippi each day.
GOD HATES GAYS
Conspiracy: Fred Phelps and his Kansas Westboro Baptist Church announced plans to picket the funerals of those who died in the bridge collapse, claiming that God caused the collapse because of two sins committed by Minnesotans: fighting for gay rights and “persecuting WBC’s missionaries” the last time they were in town. The church has drummed up publicity by picketing funerals nationwide for soldiers killed in the Iraq War and other conflicts, claiming (through some leap of illogic that we can’t quite parse) that these deaths offer proof that God hates gays.
Reality: We won’t touch this one other than to raise a question: If God really hates gays and lesbians, then why did He give the Twin Cities such beautiful weather for this year’s Pride Festival?
Conspiracy: Alison Daniels, a twenty-four-year-old from Michigan, was killed August 6 in the Radisson University Hotel, where rescue workers, government officials, and others helping inthe disaster aftermath were staying. Daniels was shot once in the head, indicative of the “control shot” technique used by mobsters and Russian assassins; from this, an experienced conspiracy theorist might infer that she knew something secret about the collapse and had plans to squeal.
Reality: Daniels was killed after stealing money from a man who paid her to marry him, according to charges filed a week after her death. The man is in jail.
THE MOTHMAN COMETH
Conspiracy: The U.S. 35 Silver Bridge, which connected West Virginia and Ohio across the Ohio River, collapsed in December 1967 while loaded with traffic, resulting in forty-six deaths. While the collapse was attributed to stress corrosion cracking and a lack of redundancy, others believed it was prophesized and possibly caused by the Mothman, a strange, winged creature locals had reported seeing just days before the collapse.
Reality: Even if you can get around the problematic logic required to believe in a man-sized moth that chases terrified adults down abandoned roads, there’s a more fundamental problem in this case: there were no reported sightings of the Mothman in the Twin Cities on August 1.
AUGSBURG, THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST
Conspiracy: One theorist alleged that Russia’s Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics used a solar radio telescope to detect an ultra-low frequency radiating from the bridge site at the exact moment it collapsed. (The institute has adamantly denied this.) That, combined with reports that the United States’ top acoustic weapons research is conducted at a secret underground facility at Augsburg College, just miles from the bridge, provide possible evidence that an experiment must have gone horribly wrong.
Reality: This doesn’t make much sense, though we wonder if something more is going on at Augsburg than the college lets on. How else could you explain a Division III school landing Devean George in the late 1990s? George went on to win three consecutive championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers. —BV