Far away tragedies reach us at the wilderness edge
Nancy Jo Tubbs

Although most major American tragedies happen far from our area, some of us are still touched by them, and some reach out to touch back.

After hearing about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 and seeing news footage of the storm damage and families stranded on roof tops, a small group of Ely folks purchased an RV and asked friends and neighbors to fill it with clothing and food, then drove it to New Orleans to distribute the donations and leave the vehicle to shelter a family.

Sometimes the destruction strikes more personally. Ely’s Jess Edberg and a friend were driving home from Jess’s brother’s wedding in California when her mom called in the middle of the night. There had been an incident at her father’s workplace. They tried many times but couldn’t reach him by phone. As the story unfolded over the next day it became clear that her father, Ron Edberg, was one of five people shot to death by a recently fired employee at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis on Sept. 27 of last year. Days earlier, Jess had enjoyed time with her 58-year old father at the wedding.

She was in the middle of Nebraska, half way home, when she received the first word, but police were still trying to formally confirm the identities of the shooting victims so that they could officially notify victims’ families.

“There was no way to be prepared for this,” Jess said. “It was surreal hearing this over the phone. No one knew anything for sure yet. It was frustrating, confusing, scary.”

Her father was a member of the International Wolf Center, where Jess is the information services director, and he had found ways to support the Center through his work. He and the signage company had contributed American Disabilities Act signage in English and braille for Center visitors, and helped update maps in the Wolves and Humans exhibit there.

“He wanted to spend time with me and he knew I liked my job. He did lots of things for the Wolf Center,” Jess said. “I still think about him every day.”

She has internal dialogues about the need for more mental health resources and social problems like bullying and the debate over gun control.

“A lot of people have a misperception about me because I had an experience with gun violence,” she said. “That one experience in my life was very tragic, but my father taught me how to use a gun and to hunt, and he would have been the first to disagree if I came out against guns. But I think some things are broken about how we distribute guns in this country. In my head I’ve drafted my own balanced perspective on the issue.

“I don’t shy away from talking with others about what happened. I want people to be able to put a face on the story. My father had a daughter and a son. He contributed to his communities.

“We can become so desensitized to these tragedies. We usually hear about it from a great distance.”

For one Ely family, disaster struck at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month just a block from where they were standing. Jeanne Bourquin was waiting to meet her runner daughter Amelia, 24, when she heard a loud metallic noise that sounded like a big dump truck hitting a trash container. She and Amelia’s boyfriend Jim knew from a marathon app that Amelia had crossed the finish line about half an hour earlier. They would actually meet her in a few minutes. It took a phone call from Jeanne’s husband Peter Pestalozzi back at the Bourquin Boat works in Ely, telling about a Minnesota Public Radio news report, for Jeanne to learn that two bombs had exploded at the race finish line moments before.

“Everyone around us started getting calls from people asking if they were safe,” she said. “People were looking at their cell phones and notebooks to see what was going on at the finish line. People all over the country knew more than we did. It was four or five minutes before we even heard the first sirens.

“Officials cordoned off the area where they’d put the runners’ bags. Runners couldn’t get to their water or dry clothes or cell phones. They couldn’t call anybody. Passersby just adopted runners close to them. They gave them food and bottles of water and let them use their phones.”

Because officials had shut down the subway, the family walked to the first open station to travel back to Cambridge were they were staying with friends. It was three hours before they saw on TV images of the carnage just a block away from where they had been standing.”

“I felt badly for the victims and all of the runners after their months and months of training,” Jeanne said. Amelia, a student at UMD, had been training since June, and the trip to Boston was a graduation present. She finished the Marathon in 3 hours and 36 minutes and, despite all of the trauma, returned to Duluth to defend her thesis the following day.

“It was very strange for us to see how randomly people can be affected,” Jeanne said. “Jim watched the race starting that morning, standing right in the spot where the bombs later went off.”

While there are many ways in which our neighbors have been touched by national tragedies, another one stands out in a unique way. In a Cold Spring Granite quarry near Babbitt, stone is being cut by the Minnesota company for the construction of the interior and exterior of the World Trade Center. Since the 9/11 destruction in 2001, the clean up and long planning process, the site has been under construction with five new skyscrapers and the long-awaited memorial to those who died in the attacks.

It’s one more way in which the local area is tied to an American tragedy. The project is scheduled for completion in 2014. Interestingly, the beautiful stone installed there is named after its place of origin. Mesabi Black.

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