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It's a 'new sense of normal' for bridge-collapse survivor

MINNETONKA, Minn. - The ruins of the Minneapolis bridge collapse are all cleaned up, but Garrett Ebling is still picking up the wreckage it made of his life.

MINNETONKA, Minn. - The ruins of the Minneapolis bridge collapse are all cleaned up, but Garrett Ebling is still picking up the wreckage it made of his life.

"Every step I take I'm sore, so that's a reminder," said Ebling, 32, a journalist who was among the worst-injured when the I-35W bridge plummeted 60 feet into the Mississippi River. "Every time I look in the mirror and see my new nose, it's a reminder. My mouth gets sore every time I chew - that's a reminder."

For most Minnesotans, what happened Aug. 1 has receded from daily notice. Answers from a federal investigation of the collapse are months away, and at the state Capitol, it has become a subject of partisan feuding. Commuters have found new routes around the gap, and a replacement bridge is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

But for Ebling, and the 15 or so others seriously injured in the collapse, the last few months have been just the beginning of a long struggle to regain their health.

Ebling's "new sense of normal," as he calls it, means recovering from numerous bone fractures in his face and jaw, two broken feet, a compound fracture in his left arm, a severed colon, and a collapsed lung.

"You try to find milestones," Ebling said.

He has a few: The day he left the hospital, two months after the collapse. Walking for without a walker, right before Thanksgiving. His first day back at work for a few hours, about four months after the collapse.

Before Aug. 1, Ebling's life was going pretty well. He was settling into a job doing public relations for Great Clips Inc. after nearly a decade of jumping from one job to another at newspapers in Virginia and Minnesota. Just four days before the collapse, he proposed to his girlfriend - and she said yes.

The day of the collapse, Ebling was driving home from an office picnic he had organized at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul.

"I was about a third of the way across" the bridge, he said. "I had my iPod on, the music was on loud. My driver's-side window was open. It was hot that day, but not so hot, and I wanted a breeze."

Ebling noticed that the cars in front of him were shaking. "All of a sudden they all just dropped at the same time," he said.

"Then, half a second later, it wasn't even a second later, I felt as if the ground below me was gone and I felt that momentary sense of weightlessness, like you're on a roller coaster that's about to drop, and then I remember my car starting to fall forward.

"And the next thing I remember is, it's August 19th."

Ebling's car fell 60 feet into a shallow part of the river. His face and feet bore the brunt of the impact, and the seat belt caused the injuries to his colon and lungs.

His face was "a bloody mess," said Rick Kraft, a cable-TV installer who was near the bridge and, with an unidentified man, waded into the river to pull Ebling out of his car and to the shore.

Ebling was conscious and talking about his injuries, Kraft recalled, though Ebling has no memory of it.

Within an hour, Ebling was at the Hennepin County Medical Center. The first concern was his severed colon, but he was in such rough shape that doctors refrained from operating for nearly two days.

"I thought he was going to die at numerous times those first few days," said Chad Richardson, the surgeon who repaired Ebling's colon.

Ebling eventually underwent six operations - two facial reconstructions plus operations on his jaw, his left arm, his left foot, his colon and his diaphragm, and might someday need more. He has metal rods and pins in his foot and arm and throughout his jaw and chin. He awaits permanent repairs to his chipped and broken teeth, and needs regular physical therapy to improve his walking.

But he has recovered faster than his doctor expected.

"The guy is a miracle," said Nemesio Herrera, who is overseeing Ebling's physical rehabilitation. "He beat all the odds considering all the trauma he had."