Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mpls Fire Chief is a Deacon; Reflects on 35W Bridge Disaster

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Deacon Jim Clack wasn’t as well prepared as usual when he preached the homilies during weekend Masses Aug. 4 and 5 at his parish, St. Pius X Parish in Zimmerman. Indeed, the deacon spoke off the cuff, without notes even.

Laziness? Procrastination? Just returning home from a vacation trip?

Nope. You see, Deacon Jim Clack is also Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack, and he had just spent the three previous days directing — non-stop — a good portion of the response, rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

Although his preparation time was scant, Deacon Clack was nevertheless grateful to be able to reflect on the experience he had just been through and relate it to the weekend Mass readings from the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of Luke. In fact, Deacon Clack said he finds that speaking from his heart often has more impact than reading from a carefully prepared manuscript.

“The whole book of Ecclesiastes focuses on what’s important in life and what really doesn’t mean much,” Deacon Clack said in an Aug. 9 e-mail interview with the St. Cloud Visitor. In the passage in Luke (12:13-21), he added, Jesus addresses the foolishness of storing up bumper crops and things of this earth instead of cultivating the true riches of a right relationship with God.

“People driving on that bridge that evening had no inkling that their lives would change so drastically,” Deacon Clack said. But God, on any night, can take back any life.

Deacon Clack said he was sitting in his fire chief’s car at a bank in Elk River with his daughter Elizabeth, 19, when he heard the first calls on the radio about the bridge collapse.

“I told Elizabeth to buckle up and hold on because she was going to have to ride with me as I raced back down to Minneapolis,” he said. “There was no time to drop her off at home.”

So, in a kind of classic “French Connection” or “Bullitt” movie car-chase scene, Deacon Clack sped down Interstate 94 at 90 miles per hour.

“Elizabeth would breath in real deep every time we approached a car from the rear to pass it,” he said.

The deacon and his daughter arrived on the scene about 30 minutes after the bridge collapse. Again, it was as if they had walked onto the set of a movie.

“Our initial view of the scene was from the 10th Ave. Bridge just downstream of the collapse site,” he said. “We both were stunned. I saw dozens of people crawling and climbing all over the various sections of the bridge. Some were obviously injured; some were firefighters, police officers and, also, many civilians. All seemed to be working together.

“I remember not hearing much noise, which was very strange. It was a scene that was hard to imagine, almost surreal. There was a semi-truck on fire which nobody seemed to be paying any attention to. There was a bus with the back door open. Kids ... I wondered out loud how many were still in the bus,” Deacon Clack said.

“I thought to myself that we would end up with many serious injuries and deaths. The devastation was almost overwhelming to my senses,” he said. “Now, in retrospect, I know that it is a modern-day miracle that so many walked and swam away from that scene.”

Deacon Clack’s immediate thoughts and emotions, however, lasted only fleeting seconds. It was then back to the business of again getting behind the wheel and finding the command post, which had been set up just on the other end of the bridge. After a quick talk with the operations chief, he sped down to City Hall and into the basement emergency operations center.

“My wife, Rose, came down to City Hall and picked up Elizabeth at some point that evening. I was too busy to notice when Elizabeth left.”

Deacon Clack said that his experience and historical perspective were beneficial Aug. 1 when he found himself in charge of the response to a major disaster.

“I was not working for the fire department when the Northwest Bank fire occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1982,” he said, “but many of the lessons learned at that high-rise fire 25 years ago were passed on to me as a young firefighter by the ‘crusty’ old veterans who would tell me as a young rookie firefighter to ‘pace yourself’ and never commit all your energy and resources to any one incident. The old chiefs would say, ‘Never get too excited and keep your voice calm on the radio because everyone working for you will follow your lead. If you are flying off the handle, so will everyone else.’

“These wise thoughts came back to me the evening the 35W Bridge collapsed. In those initial moments I was very tempted to send every available fire truck to the scene and call everyone in from home that was not working. Instead, we kept a few companies in reserve and did not ask everyone to report for duty. I was also very careful to talk calmly and deliberately on the radio, telephone or in media interviews. It turns out that the old guys were pretty wise,” he said.

Deacon Clack said such a circumspect approach has implications also for church leadership.

“I think our church leadership has developed a similar mode of operation. They never seem to act or react quickly. Good bishops and pastors make time to consider options and always look back for the experience of those who came before them,” he said. “To the lay faithful living in a wealthy and very fast-paced society, this leadership style can at times come across as indecisive or even as ‘glacial’ thinking. Sure, there are things that happen which require a forceful and immediate response, but I have learned that many ‘emergencies’ will resolve themselves if we take a little time to think, and to pray for help.”

Deacon Clack said that his secular role as fire chief and his ordained role as a deacon often intersect.

“The firefighters know about my faith life, which in some ways makes me more ‘approachable.’ We lost a healthy and young firefighter — Barry Delude, a 20-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department — to influenza last February. I was able to serve as deacon at the funeral Mass and give a short reflection about what Barry meant to me and the fire department. Many of the people who work for me were pleasantly surprised and offered support as I attempted to balance my faith and my secular profession as a leader in local government.”

Even after witnessing devastation that would cause many people to question, “Where is God?” Deacon Clack says his faith in God has never been stronger.

“The miracles I have witnessed over my career in the fire service just make me realize more and more that God is with me, blessing me and watching over me as I stumble through life,” he said. “I have seen babies born right in front of me and helped ‘jump start’ the hearts of many very old people. I feel blessed to have witnessed those everyday miracles which God’s grace makes possible.

“I never expected to be a deacon or a fire chief, but I know that these things are not really up to me. I just need to listen for the voice of God and everything will be according to his plan for my life.” The Catholic Spirit

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