Holyoke man answers call to help at I-35W bridge collapse

Conservation officer and Holyoke resident Ralph LaPlant has a good and somewhat comical working relationship with his boss. So when LaPlant got a serious message last Thursday saying only, "Call me," he knew something was up.

Conservation officer and Holyoke resident Ralph LaPlant has a good and somewhat comical working relationship with his boss. So when LaPlant got a serious message last Thursday saying only, "Call me," he knew something was up.

Through a series of calls from Minnesota State Patrol, LaPlant and his colleagues were tapped to help at the Minneapolis I-35 bridge catastrophe. "He barely got the words out before I said yes," LaPlant said.

LaPlant, an Anoka native who worked at Hennepin County Medical Center as an ambulance paramedic during the 1970s, wanted to offer support. As a conservation officer for the 1854 Treaty Authority, he is charged with off reservation conservation enforcement for the Bois Forte and Grand Portage Ojibwe Bands in northeastern Minnesota. Additionally, he is a licensed peace officer and teaches emergency training classes. LaPlant didn't think he'd get close to the actual scene in Minneapolis, but thought he could help at a road block or in some other way.

He and two other conservation officers for the 1854 Treaty Authority, Clay Rumph of Hovland and Leo Vidal of the Net Lake Reservation, headed to Minneapolis last Thursday afternoon.

"I threw some stuff including my camera in a bag and left my house within 15 minutes," LaPlant said.


When the trio arrived at the command center in the Minneapolis Red Cross parking lot around 6 p.m., they were met with gratitude.

"People were glad to see us and happy for our help," LaPlant said. "There was an air of respect for everyone working in the area."

They met officers and officials from all over the Twin Cities and from across the country, but no one else from northern Minnesota.

"The only other northern Minnesotan we met was a Minneapolis police officer from West Duluth who just started the job about six weeks ago," LaPlant said.

As it turned out, LaPlant witnessed the aftermath of the bridge collapse from all angles as he was assigned to drive around all night in a small open truck with an officer delivering food and beverages to those stationed at road blocks.

"We went around to all of them with water, energy drinks and food. There must have been 300 people working at different checkpoints throughout the night," he said. "It was phenomenal."

Seeing the collapsed bridge for the first time left LaPlant speechless.

"When we came to the first point where we could see what had happened, we just stopped and stared," LaPlant said. "Not one of us said a word for what seemed like a long time. There was no noise at all while we soaked it in and tried to register the enormity of what had happened."


In his days as a paramedic in Minneapolis, LaPlant saw a 30-car pile up accident and was once called to a scene where a theater stage collapsed, but nothing compared to the scene before him.

"I was practically a kid in those days and saw some bad things," he said. "But then, no matter what I saw I always thought it wouldn't happen to me. Now that I'm older, it's tougher to shrug things off. I'm not overly religious, but when you see this, you have to say good God, I'm lucky to be alive."

They traveled all the way around the perimeter that night and LaPlant, who is also a photographer, took photos whenever he got the chance.

"I wanted to capture what I could and as word got around that I'm a photographer, different agencies wanted me to take photos for them too," he explained. "I only took somewhere over 100 photos but it felt like I took 400 because the scene was so intense."

His photographic eye took note of a banner posted in a nearby building that simply said, "Pray." He also saw a memorial in the form of flowers on a nearby bridge.

LaPlant did the best he could to sleep at a nearby hotel and then at a colleague's friend's house during the days and returned to the scene in the evenings on Friday and Saturday.

It was bizarre to travel through nearby parts of the city where life looked normal with people going about their business, according to LaPlant.

"People were just sitting at sidewalk cafes, and yet utter destruction was within blocks," he remembered.


Back on the scene, LaPlant worked where he was needed, signing in new workers, picking up garbage and traveling with Minneapolis police officers, helping them to respond to a nearby burglary call.

"The camaraderie was amazing," he said. "All the agencies worked very well together."

When President Bush came to town on Saturday, only Minneapolis police officers were allowed in the immediate area.

"It was too chaotic for security reasons to have so many people from so many places," he explained. "So we came back in the evening after he was gone."

LaPlant and his colleagues left after their shift early Sunday morning, exhausted and in awe.

"I can't believe we got the call [to help]," he said. "It was an honor to be there."

Pine Journal Editor Lisa Baumann can be contacted at: .

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