Casualties of Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge

The first accident related to the Aerial Lift Bridge occurred in May, 1930. W. J. Odenthal of Killdeer, North Dakota, and his son were driving north along South Lake Avenue on Park Point as the lift span began raising. Odenthal didn’t notice the stop sign nor the bridge’s warning bells as he drove up the bridge’s south pier approach ramp. Consequently, he drove off the ramp, sending the car into the canal. Neither he nor his son were injured. Safety measures were soon added, including gates at either approach to prevent cars from reaching the bridge.

In 1934, seventeen-year-old Melvin Halverson grabbed the edge of a beam on the bottom of the span and held on as the bridge began to rise. A person can support their own body weight only so long—someone of average upper-body strength can hang from a pull-up bar for between one and several minutes. The bridge’s lift span must stay in the raised position much longer than “a few minutes” to let a ship pass beneath. At thirty feet his arms gave out; he fell to the pier, hit his head, and died instantly.

Sixteen year-old Minneapolis resident Beverly Brenner ignored warnings in December, 1961, remaining on the bridge’s sidewalk until after it began to raise. As the lift span moved upward, she panicked and jumped, but luckily the bridge was only eight feet above the pavement and she suffered only minor injuries.

A nineteen-year-old man tested himself against the bridge in September 1982. Frank Weber and Tom Hanna, both of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, were visiting the canal when the bridge prepared to raise for a small sailboat. Assuming the lift span would not be up for long, Weber grabbed a rail and ascended with the lift span, but he lost his grip. As Weber began to fall Hanna rushed beneath him to break his fall. Instead, Weber’s weight broke Hanna’s leg. Hanna’s heroics were for naught; Weber died at the scene.

Arguably the most notorious event in the bridge’s history occurred in June 1990. At 11:30 a.m. as the bridge prepared to lift to allow an excursion boat to pass beneath it, fifty-year-old woman began walking across the lift span despite its warning bells and flashing lights. She was almost halfway across when she panicked, screaming “Help me! Somebody help me, please!” If she had stayed on the sidewalk and not moved, she could have safely ridden up and back down on the lift span. Instead she ran back toward the north approach and, when the bridge was thirty to forty feet above the ground, she leaned over and attempted to jump. But she became caught in a V of the bridge’s metalwork. As the lift span continued upward, it carried the woman toward the stationary north tower; dismembered by the rising bridge, she died instantly. Witnesses described the event as gruesome. The bridge’s operators were unaware of the event until after it had happened.

The most recent tragedy occurred in December 2014, when a twenty-year-old man died after jumping from atop the bridge. Police were called to the bridge at 11:30 p.m. and spent four hours negotiating with the suicidal man, who ultimately leaped from the bridge and drowned in the canal.