Jay Reeves was on his way home from work on a local street that followed the bank of the Mississippi River and crossed underneath the I-35 bridge.
He was no more than 100 yards — “four or five seconds” — away when the bridge came down and he went from commuter to rescuer.
“I saw green metal moving and a big cloud of reddish-brown dust,” he told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer. “I saw the deck move. And the first thing that goes through your head is, ‘I don’t think I just saw that.’ And then, of course, eventually your brain catches up with you, and you do know that it happened.”
The steel truss bridge that carried as many as 200,000 cars a day more than 60 feet over the Mississippi had collapsed during the evening rush hour. At least four people were killed, a figure that is expected to increase as rescuers search submerged cars in the river. Some 20 people were still missing Thursday morning.
A member of the American Red Cross and a trained paramedic, Reeves did next what Americans always seem to do when they come face-to-face with catastrophe — he looked for somebody to help.
“I parked my car about 20 yards away,” he said. Above him, leaning against the guardrail on a sagging hunk of collapsed roadway, was a yellow school bus.
It was “parked behind the tractor trailer that was burning — children were kind of flowing out of that at that time,” he said. He and other motorists didn’t hesitate or look around for somebody else to do the job.
“There was a great deal of goodness going on there,” Reeves said. “People were immediately starting to help the children off the bus, lowering them over the side of the bridge.”
He saw cuts on many of the 52 kids on the bus, and their nine adult supervisors were banged up, but, he said, “no one was hurt very severely.”
‘Children were screaming’
Twelve-year-old Nina Jenkins was one of the children on the bus. They ranged in age from 5 to 14 and were on their way home from a swimming outing sponsored by a local agency.
“It got real bumpy and shaky and rumbly, and then it just dropped,” is how Nina described the collapse. “Children were screaming, everybody was going crazy. We were kind of close to the water. Everybody was screaming.”
She credited an adult aide, Jeremy Hernandez, with opening the rear emergency exit door and getting everyone out of the bus.
“People were bleeding from their ears. They had a lot of chest pain. People were bleeding from their lips,” she said. “People hurt their legs like I did.”
She said she was rescued by “neighbors from the American Red Cross. There was like a sidewalk. The neighbors were helping us get off the concrete sidewalk; the bus was kind of sliding.”
On the other side of the river, Dennis Winegar had just merged onto I-35 from I-94. A Minnesota native who had transferred to Houston, he had gotten a kidney transplant three years earlier; his wife, Jamie was the donor.
He had gotten a clean bill of health earlier in the day during his annual checkup. Now, he and his wife, Jamie, daughter, Logan, along with his nephew, Jake, and Jake’s grandmother, Mary Kelly, were in a rental car headed north to spend the evening with relatives.