Annette John-Hall | Commuters put the risk out of their minds

Traffic on the deteriorating South Street Bridge. The converted railroad bridge, built over the Schuylkill for the Centennial celebrations of 1876, has been shedding concrete and has been tagged "structurally deficient" - as was the Interstate 35W bridge in Minnesota, which fell Wednesday.

As Joseph West watched news of the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse on TV Wednesday night, the first thing that went through his mind was "that [expletive] South Street Bridge."

Engineers may have deemed it safe, but pieces of it have fallen off.

West, an employee at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, crosses the deteriorating span connecting Center City to University City every day, as do hundreds of other pedestrians.

As do the motorists who fly over the bridge's narrow lanes and the motorcyclists and students riding their bikes. Wearing a helmet may be conscientious, yet it won't do you much good if the bridge crumbles and flings you into the Schuylkill.

But commuters hardly think about possible catastrophe when crossing the South Street Bridge is as routine as having a bowl of cereal in the morning.

It's only when you see a disaster the magnitude of what happened in Minneapolis that you wonder.

Unexpected tragedy

It was the evening rush hour. An eight-lane interstate bridge, a major artery in Minneapolis that was in the midst of repair, breaks into enormous sections and collapses into the Mississippi River, sending scores of commuters and crashing cars into the water.

One day you're going to work, and the next day . . . well, you may not be around to see the next day.

"I've been working for over 30 years, and this [South Street] bridge has been in bad shape for a long time," West says, just as an enormous tractor-trailer rumbles over, obviously ignoring a sign that prohibits trucks over six tons from using the span.

"You feel that swaying?" he asks. "That truck's not even supposed to be crossing this bridge."

West isn't too hopeful that the much-talked-about bridge reconstruction is really going to happen any time soon. He only hopes the span holds up until he retires in a couple of years.

Isn't it odd that, since 9/11, we jump out of our skin whenever we hear of shootings on campuses, of pipes bursting in New York, of bridges collapsing, that we think it might be an act of terrorism? We drive ourselves crazy with worry, knowing in our hearts that the randomness is something we can't control.

Now here we have a structure such as the South Street Bridge, a connector fraught with problems, yet we don't worry about it at all.

Mask of beauty

On a stifling 95-degree day, the bridge may be one of the few places in the city to catch a soothing breeze.

And it's one of the most scenic. Standing on the deck of the span, the Schuylkill on one side, the city's glorious skyline on the other, it's a picture postcard of urban tranquillity.

That is, until you see the cars whizzing by in both directions on the Schuylkill Expressway, which sits, ominously, right below, the highway next to train tracks.

That's when you realize, with dread, what could happen if such a bridge, one that has been closed twice in three years to repair decaying asphalt, disintegrates.

Mara Killen and Rebecca Hancock, nursing students at Penn who live in Center City, try to ease their fear with a little gallows humor.

"One of my friends jokes that she's had a big breakfast - maybe she'll fall through," Hancock says. "There's a nervousness, but [the bridge] is convenient."

The truth is, people just want to go about their everyday lives with as little hassle as possible.

"People know it's unsafe," Killen says. "Pieces of it have fallen into the Schuylkill. But it's such a main vein for going back and forth to the hospital. . . . I think it would limit a lot of people."

Both Killen and Hancock say they wouldn't mind if the bridge got closed for an overhaul - they'd find another way to get to work. For them, inconvenience doesn't trump safety.

But it doesn't look like the 84-year-old South Street Bridge, which engineers have deemed structurally deficient but safe, will undergo a reconstruction anytime soon.

Meanwhile, those who use the bridge continue to go back and forth, going about their business on a rotting "structurally deficient but safe" bridge.

Aware that tragedy may or may not strike, they're philosophical.

"Somebody has to be standing on the bridge, or riding their bikes or driving on it," Killen sighs. "The odds are [if the bridge falls] it will be us . . . but it has to be someone."

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or