A school bus crawls through southbound Interstate 35W traffic in Minneapolis on a hot August afternoon, and Jenny Xiong dozes lightly amidst the chatter and singing of more than 50 youths and several co-workers.

She smiles in her half-sleep, knowing what a great time the kids had that afternoon at Bunker Beach Water Park in Coon Rapids and how much they look forward to these Wednesday afternoon field trips. It had been a time to cool off, unwind and to release all of their pent-up energy.

Outside of downtown, the bus moves onto the I-35W bridge across the Mississippi River and stays in the right lane. The rush-hour traffic, confined to two lanes in each direction because of resurfacing work on the bridge, slows to 10 miles per hour and Jenny thinks about how much longer it will take to get to her destination. Two of her sisters need a ride.

Halfway across the 1,900-foot-long bridge and just over the river, Jenny notices a Taystee semitrailer pass the bus in the left lane, but she thinks little of it. She just wants to get home.

Suddenly, the Taystee truck disappears from sight as the bridge begins to buckle and collapse. The bus falls 30 feet and lands squarely on all of its wheels on the bridge span, sliding into the guardrail above West River Parkway and tilting to the right.

Chaos is ubiquitous: On the bus. In cars stranded on the bridge. In the eyes of screaming children and shocked passersby who scramble to help. In the calm but hurried actions of police officers, firefighters and paramedics arriving at the scene.

And Jenny Xiong – daughter of Hmong refugees from Thailand, graduate of Minneapolis Southwest High School, community center worker at Waite House and matriculating freshman at the University of St. Thomas – wonders just what has happened to her peaceful Wednesday afternoon.

(Image at right: David Brewster/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Press)

Forty-two months after the chaos, Jenny explains in an interview how she had a premonition of the I-35W bridge collapse, which occurred at 6:05 p.m. Aug. 1, 2007. She says this so matter-of-factly that you have no reason to doubt her, and she mesmerizes you with her recollections of the day.

“I remember putting my head down on the seat ahead of me,” she said. “Right before we got onto the bridge I had a flash of the bridge collapsing, and of fire and smoke. I dismissed it. I thought I was just being paranoid.”

Then the Taystee truck cruised by the bus, and Jenny saw coworker Jimmy Hanson, who had been sitting next to her, fly into the air before landing on her.

“It wasn’t until after we had stopped that I looked around and saw everything in disarray,” she said. “I heard the kids moaning and crying and wanting their mommies.

I couldn’t breathe. I thought, ‘Oh, God!’ I had no idea what had happened. I thought we had been in an accident of some sort, but I didn’t know for sure. I looked out the window and all I could see was gray smoke and debris.”

The weight of Hanson, a strapping 6-foot-3, trapped the 4-foot-9 Jenny and her lungs compressed. Gasping, she fought for air and spotted blood on her hands. Jeremy Hernandez, another co-worker, kicked open the rear emergency door and pushed out the kids one by one.

“I couldn’t feel anything in my back but I was able to walk,” Jenny said. “I thought I was okay, and I wanted to help kids get off the bus. I didn’t realize until I reached the back door of the bus what had happened. I could see that part of the bridge was gone – literally gone.”

She was handed down from the bus to the bridge span and then the ground.

“I didn’t have time to think,” she said. “I worried if the kids were safe. I kept telling them, ‘We’ll be okay. You’ll see your parents soon.’ I also wanted to make sure we got as far away from the bridge as possible. When you looked back, all you could see was black smoke from cars that had fallen. I worried the rest of the bridge would collapse or that our bus would catch on fire.”

Once she got to the ground, her back gave out on her. She limped up West River Parkway to the nearby American Red Cross and lay down until an ambulance arrived. One of her concerns was how to reach her younger sisters who were waiting for a ride home.

“I borrowed a cell phone from a stranger,” she said. “I told (my sister) the bridge had collapsed and I couldn’t pick her up. She thought I was kidding: ‘No, c’mon you’re always late, come and pick us up.’”

An ambulance transported Jenny within the hour to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, where X-rays confirmed a broken back. She spent five days at the hospital and would wear a back brace for three months.

Remarkably, no one on the bus was killed and none of the children suffered major injuries. Driver Kim Dahl also had a broken back, as did Waite House youth program manager Julie Graves, who had been sitting in the front and was thrown down the steps.

Eric Bergmanis, a lawyer in Hudson, Wis., visited Jenny in the hospital. His law firm was among 17 that provided pro bono legal services, coordinated by the Minneapolis-based firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, for the bridge collapse victims. Jenny gave testimony twice to individuals appointed by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“What those kids went through, psychologically, you don’t wish that on anybody,” Bergmanis said. “It’s almost like they were going through a war.”

As Jenny lay in her hospital bed and then recuperated at home, she faced a big decision on whether to proceed with her plans to enroll the following month at St. Thomas. At least, her parents and six siblings thought it was a big decision. She didn’t.

“I never thought of skipping the fall semester,” she said. “I went shopping with my dad for a laptop, and I told him, ‘I’m still going to school, dad.’ Something inside of me said, ‘You have to go. You can’t take off a semester.’ I couldn’t see myself just sitting at home and closing myself off from the world and all of the experiences of college.”

At St. Thomas, a volunteer group headed by Sister Sharon Howell, associate dean of students, began to raise funds and collect household items for Jenny’s family. Her older sister, Panou, then a nursing student at St. Catherine, was married and lived with her husband’s parents, and they had lost many of their possessions in a house fire just weeks before the bridge collapse.

Howell had concerns about how Jenny would cope with college life so soon after the collapse, but she admired the teenager’s attitude and resilient character. Jenny moved into Dowling Hall, back brace and all, and took a full class load.

“I met her right after the bridge collapse,” said Tonia Jones Peterson, then a Multicultural Student Services staff member and today an academic counselor. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been part of that tragedy, but she pulled through.”

“I never thought of skipping the fall semester … Something inside of me said, ‘You have to go.’”

Jenny initially was interested in becoming a newspaper editor or a  teacher before her interests shifted to medicine. Concerned about the demands of medical school, she consulted Peterson, whom she knew through the Multicultural Student Services Linkages program as a mentee and then a mentor. Peterson’s husband is a pharmacist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, and Jenny shadowed him in his job.

She ultimately chose biochemistry as a major and decided she wanted to become a pharmacist. Competition for pharmacy school openings is extremely high, and she knew that she would need good grades, a research portfolio and a record of community service and volunteerism.

As she graduates this month, Jenny has all of those: a 3.8 G.P.A., several research projects in collaboration with or supervised by chemistry and biology professors, selection as a McNair Scholar and participation in Linkages, the students of color organization Hana and a 2009 volunteer trip to Laos, where students helped to build a town hall. She also was a volunteer at United Hospitals in St. Paul and Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.

“Jenny is amazing,” Peterson said. “She has had so much adversity to overcome, plus school and her community and family responsibilities. She is just a rock star.”

Drs. Tom Marsh in Chemistry and Amy Verhoeven in Biology feel the same way. Marsh is Jenny’s academic and research adviser and collaborated with her on research involving ant colonies and nutrition. Verhoeven supervised her research on the use of herbal plants for medicinal purposes.

“Jenny is a highly self-motivated individual,” Marsh said, and able “to work independently. She runs experiments, compiles data and then talks to me. She’s incredibly dedicated.”

“She’s fabulous,” Verhoeven added.

And Graves, her former supervisor at the Waite House, marvels at her accomplishments. “Jenny is an inspiration to me,” she said.

Jenny’s next stop is the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the University of Minnesota or the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She then would like to pursue a Ph.D in experimental or clinical pharmacology at Minnesota to allow her to continue her passion for research.

Her goal is simple: she wants to help people.

“I want to understand how different ethnic groups use medications and how they respond to drugs,” she said. “I want to focus on individual situations instead of giving everyone the same prescriptions.”

Life may sound – and even seem – easy today to Jenny, but the months following the bridge collapse were filled with uncertainty, insomnia and nightmares as she struggled to make sense out of what had happened.

“I remember one dream,” she said. “I was driving on a really long bridge and the next thing I knew, the bridge was breaking into small pieces. I was trying to figure out how to get across with so much of the bridge broken up. In another dream, I was driving on a bridge across a big body of water when the bridge collapsed. I fell into the water but the car was still functioning.”

Like many children on the bus, Jenny suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The first couple of weeks, I ignored the flashbacks,” she said. “I was in denial that I had PTSD and didn’t want to talk about it. If people asked me, I’d say, ‘Yes, I was on the bridge,’ but I wouldn’t talk about it. Spring semester was the toughest. I felt I was bottling everything up. During spring break, my grandparents passed away. I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. I told myself that I needed to sit down and find a way to deal with it. I questioned whether to take the rest of the semester off.”

She didn’t, but that summer she went to the Counseling and Psychological Services office at St. Thomas. The visit made a huge difference.

“I was able to talk to a psychologist who really helped me organize everything that had happened,” she said. “How to grieve, how to let go of things and how to deal with stress.”

She still has mixed emotions today.

“You think of the people who didn’t make it,” she said. “You wonder, ‘Why was I saved?’ You really learn how much strength, how much determination you have. It tests who you are as a person … and how you can challenge yourself to be a better person.”

She also found great solace in her faith in God and her family, and she kept the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” taped to her bed stand to read every night before she went to sleep. Over time, she has noticed a change in her values, and she no longer takes anything for granted.

“I began to appreciate life more,” she said.

She still thinks about the bridge collapse – “it’s never far in the past” – but she doesn’t dwell on it, and she feels “blessed” whenever she goes over a bridge.

“I’m not sure,” she said, “that I’d be who I am today without having gone through the experience.”

 

Read more from St. Thomas magazine