As Dave Scharnhorst drove the final spans of the I-35W bridge last week he saw a construction worker run, then seem to shoot, into the air. In reality, the road underneath Mr. Scharnhorst's car had given way.
Driving steeply up to safety, he parked and headed back with some of the workers to help. "I found myself wandering around, feeling: Somebody tell me what to do and I'll do it," says Scharnhorst.
Then he spotted a woman emerge from a car, shaking. He comforted her and helped her find her husband. "I got to talk with her and calm her down, which coincidently was calming me down," he says. "I had something to do."
As the scenes in Minneapolis played out on TV, people across Minnesota and the world would have the same urge to help.
Offers of aid spike after disasters, but first-response agencies sometimes struggle to accommodate these goodwill offers because the initial need is for trained, experienced volunteers. Minneapolis, however, leads the nation in volunteerism, providing a deep pool of veteran helpers when tragedy struck.
"Having a large corps of people who are trained and prepared has helped enormously," says Courtney Johnson, spokesperson for the Minneapolis-area American Red Cross.
Trained volunteers have assisted in every aspect of the response, from grief counseling to food preparation and crowd control. Some of the divers who have been risking their lives among the wreckage are special deputy volunteers who have worked on police teams for years.
Twin Cities: Nearly a million volunteer
Just weeks before the bridge collapse, a report from the Corporation for National & Community Service found that Minneapolis-St. Paul led the nation's cities with a 40.5 percent volunteer rate. Nearly 1 million residents chalked up 106.7 million hours per year between 2004 and 2006. The group credits high homeownership and education levels in the Twin Cities.
"The first day after this happened, the phone banks were just ringing off the wall with people saying, 'We don't know what to do, but we want to do something,' " says Jim Morris, who handles logistics for the local Red Cross.
For many businesses and individuals, the most obvious way to help was to donate supplies. Many of the 20,000 meals and snacks served to first responders came from donations, including 300 cases of bottled water; four pallets of granola bars; hundreds of cookies; cakes, and pizzas; and 600 sweet rolls. One company came and served up hamburgers, another bratwurst. Others gave ATVs, tents, fuel, sunscreen, and bug spray.
More than 2,500 people came to donate blood, so many that some had to schedule appointments for later in the summer when supplies tend to drop.
Offers: foot rubs, frequent-flier miles
Unusual offers came in from far and wide. A German company had a satellite-mapping system to offer. Residents wondered if they could donate their frequent-flier miles to relatives of the victims.
"We had one gal that came in yesterday offering to give foot rubs to officers or anyone who had been on their feet for long periods of time," says Mr. Morris.
Not all offers from the thousands of callers could be readily taken, leaving those yearning to give their time in the first 72 hours a little frustrated.
"I tell people, if this is something you want to do, go to your local Salvation Army and sign up to get training to be a local disaster volunteer," says Annette Bauer, community-relations director with the area Salvation Army. "Four months down the road, people emotionally won't feel as compelled. So we try to get them to sign up now in the moment."
The deep experience the of others on his team impressed and energized Alan Brankline, a longtime volunteer grief counselor with the Red Cross. He spent days comforting the families of the missing. "I felt I could do the work because I was there with colleagues who were just as trained and experienced."
He characterized the grief in this disaster as focused on feelings of bewilderment. The families were asking, "How could this be happening in the United States of America, in Minneapolis? A bridge is not supposed to collapse." However, they weren't looking for blame or lashing out in anger, he says.
More blood drives and fundraising
As the work of the first responders winds down, more opportunities open up for the less experienced to lend a hand. Businesses, churches, and schools are already inquiring about hosting blood drives. And those holding community concerts and art events plan to raise money for the Salvation Army.
One family drove two hours Saturday to stand with a Salvation Army kettle in the pouring rain at a Minneapolis arts fair. "It's such a little thing that we did, but I just don't know what else you can do," says Lynelle Parker of Mora, Minn.
One of her high school friends, Greg Jolstad, was a construction worker on the bridge who remains among the eight missing. She remembers "Jolly" most for his humor. "People stopped to talk with us, and I told them that I do have a friend that's still missing, and I think that it really touched them, too."
Ms. Parker's 11-year-old daughter, Abby, originally had the idea to do something more than sit and watch the news: "I have diabetes and I know it's nice to know that people are raising money for me."
Woven throughout the reflections offered over the past week during church services, rallies, and by onlookers on the riverbanks, has been the metaphor of rebuilding "human bridges."
"We need bridges between people," says Kathy Hintz, explaining why she came out for a prayer vigil held Sunday night. "We have to trust each other because other people made these cars and these bridges. It's pretty amazing that anything works as well as it does. And if you can't trust each other, you can't have a community."