ANKENY, Iowa — Aug. 1, 2022 marks 15 years since the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring over a hundred others. For at least one Iowan who was responding in the aftermath, it still feels recent.
Ankeny Fire Chief James Clack started the job back in 2014, but before that, he held the same job in Minneapolis.
Remembering when he first arrived on the scene of the collapse, Clack said, "It was almost surreal. It looked like a movie set, almost. That was the first thing that went through my mind: 'Is this real?'"
Aug. 1 has been an important date for Clack for a long time, even before the accident.
"I think about it every year. August 1 happens to be my wedding anniversary, so [my wife and I] were going to go out to dinner that night," he said.
But those plans were interrupted by a flurry of calls over the radio.
"I knew something big was going on. It wasn't real clear right away what happened. But it became clear pretty fast that we lost a big section of bridge into the river," Clack said.
111 vehicles were on the I-35W bridge when it collapsed that night. In the early hours of the response, Clack said there were fears the collapse was actually a terrorist attack, but it was eventually determined to be a design flaw in the bridge itself.
The immediate focus was on evacuating anyone they could, as well as coordinating the response with anyone who could help, from local first responders to the mayor's office.
"That was the biggest lesson learned. Relationships are everything, and building relationships before something happens is critical to making sure that the event actually goes as well as it can go," Clack said.
In the years after the collapse, Clack says he shared those sorts of lessons with first responders around the country. He hopes that if a similar crisis ever hits any of those communities he spoke to, those experiences can help them navigate it.
"The lessons we learned, I think, we were able to convey to other people through all these presentations, and after action reports, is helpful in the future," he said.
In 2019, Clack was awarded "career fire chief of the year" from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.