Father Brian Lynch, associate pastor at St. Ambrose of Woodbury, a St. Paul suburb, was driving on Interstate 35W south in Minneapolis heading toward the Mississippi bridge about 6:20 p.m., 15 minutes after the bridge collapsed.
He and three friends were on their way to watch the Minnesota Twins play the Kansas City Royals, and they had yet to hear of the catastrophe. As they approached the bridge, traffic was rerouted, and Father Lynch, 38, could tell the reason was serious.
They turned on the radio, heard the news and decided to offer their help.
They crossed the Mississippi River west of the I-35W bridge on the Stone Arch Bridge, a historic Minneapolis foot bridge that has spanned the river since 1883. From there they could view the damage - the concrete chunks of road in the water, the twisted steel truss, the vehicles that had fallen when the bridge gave out under them.
As of the afternoon of Aug. 3, the official death toll stood at 5; nearly 100 have been treated in area hospitals. At least 20-30 people were still missing.
"Your first impression was something like disbelief," Father Lynch said. "Some combination of incredible, impossible."
He and his companions went to Red Cross headquarters. Father Lynch was preparing himself to administer the sacraments and comfort those who might be dying, he said.
"When you saw [that] the whole bridge is gone, you start to do the math initially and don't know the whole story, you start to think there could be a lot of people really, really hurt right now," he said.
However, Father Lynch didn't see anyone who needed him for sacraments, he said. "We weren't just running into many that were injured," he said. People in the area were "in motion," he said - people were in a hurry "to get places," and rescuers and medics were concentrating on their work.
Even though he didn't feel immediately needed, he stayed on the scene for about two hours, he said. "The responsibility that I felt was to be available, and that's what I tried to be," he said. "As is not uncommon in ministry, you're trying to find that balance between being active and passive."
Finding God in the rubble
Tragedies often lead people to question the role of faith and the work of God, Father Robert O'Donnell remarked in his homily at the 12:10 p.m. daily Mass Aug. 2 at St. Lawrence-Newman, the closest Catholic church to the I-35W bridge.
The Mass was offered for the victims. St. Lawrence-Newman serves the University of Minnesota as a Newman Center as well as the neighboring community.
"Where is God?" he asked before about 20 people gathered.
"Perhaps the only answer I can give at this time of tragedy is that I may not know . . . how it fits into God's mysterious plan, but I know where God was," he said.
God was in the heart of the civilians who rushed to the scene, eager to help, he said. He was with the rescue workers, the medical personnel and those praying for the victims.
Earlier that morning, Father O'Donnell had arranged a special prayer area at the church and placed a book in which parishioners and students could write prayers.
"May the deceased rest in peace, the injured heal quickly, the families be comforted and the emergency workers be watched over and protected," one entry read.
"It seems to help people," Father O'Donnell said of the prayer book. "Many of us are feeling useless . . . . It helps to put it down." The Catholic Spirit