On August 1, 2007, during bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic, the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed. Vehicles tumbled down to the Mississippi River and its rocky shore. The horror of the event consumed my thoughts for a long time, but so did the sheer randomness of who was on the bridge at the moment of collapse. A few seconds separated those who made it to the other side of the bridge and those who did not. A few seconds separated those whose vehicles plunged 35 meters and those whose vehicles remained perched in the wreckage above. Thirteen people were killed and 145 were injured.
There are many people who can say they survived that catastrophe, people who recovered from serious injury, people stranded atop the broken bridge, people who unknowingly reached the other side in the nick of time. In a second, life could have been lost; in fact, lives were lost. But not theirs.
I’ve been thinking about the collapsed bridge this week in the wake of the catastrophe that occurred at Mount Meron.
Harrowing, first-person accounts from Mount Meron bring us face-to-face with the awful randomness of who perished and who survived. There were those who happened to be standing safely away from the crush, and there were 45 souls whose lives were extinguished beneath the weight of toppled bodies.
There were survivors, individuals trapped in the pileup and pulled free. In a second, life could have been lost; in fact, lives were lost. But not theirs.
It is natural to ask “why” after such a calamity. There are many “why”s that need to be addressed and answered. Just as there was a deep investigation into what brought the bridge down, there must be a reckoning with how the Mount Meron disaster occurred so that such a tragedy never happens again.
But there is another kind of “why” for which there are no answers. Why did this one survive and that one did not? That’s a challenge for anyone who brushes up so close to death — but lives. How do you survive such an experience and make sense of it?
Sixteen years ago, on a beautiful late summer day, I was hit by a truck while riding my bike. I flew through the air and landed in a crumpled, broken heap in the street. Barely conscious, I was sure this was the end for me. I was so surprised! I thought back to the High Holidays nearly a year earlier, and realized, “I wasn’t inscribed for another year!” It was as if everyone I knew had been invited to a party, but I was not. My invitation had not gone missing in the mail. No, the guest list had been carefully drawn up and I was excluded. My fate, this fate, had been signed and sealed months before.
But I was wrong.
I was badly injured, with more broken bones than I care to count, and I nearly lost a leg. It took months of recuperation and a full year until I could walk again. But I survived. Lives are lost in bike accidents all the time. Bikers who are younger than I am, more skilled than I am, are killed on the spot. Whenever I hear about these tragedies, I am reminded of how much randomness is part of life and am drenched in gratitude for the life given back to me that day. In a second, my life could have been lost; but it was not.
A few well-meaning people assured me that God spared my life for a reason or that I had a guardian angel watching over me that day. I reject both well-intended explanations. There is no answer as to why one person is so lucky, when many others are not. The answer to that question is simply unavailable to us.
Perhaps instead of asking ‘why?” we should ask “what?” and “how?”
What will I do with the life I could have lost, but didn’t? How will I show my gratitude for still being alive? I’ve tried to keep these questions at the front of my mind ever since. As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote of the Mount Meron tragedy, “Our sublimity is not in finding the reason but in crafting the response.”
I realize that what happened to me pales in comparison to a mass casualty event like a bridge collapse or what happened on Mount Meron. Therefore, I offer these thoughts with humility and with empathy.
I pray that God will comfort all who lost loved ones in the disaster and that those who survived will find peace, meaning, and eventually, joy in the years that were gifted back to them.