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June 11, 1990

Duluth woman killed while trying to get off rising lift bridge; Witness says victim panicked

A Duluth woman was killed in a bizarre accident on the city's famed Aerial Lift Bridge just before noon Sunday.

Duluth police said that the 50-year-old woman, who was on the bridge, was killed as it was being raised.

The woman's name was being withheld last night.

Earl Seymour, a retired Duluth fire captain, was standing on the bridge pier with his grandchildren when he saw the woman, who had walked about 30 feet on the bridge. He said she appeared to be confused when the bridge began to rise, and ran back, yelling, to the north end of the span.

Seymour said the woman looked as if she was preparing to jump. Instead, he said, "She tried to get through a small part of the bridge's gridwork," where she was caught between the bridgework and the rising span.

Duluth and U.S. Coast Guard officials said the woman was struck by a beam as the bridge rose.

"It was a body cut in two, a sight you don't want to see a second time," said a Coast Guard officer who did not witness the accident. He said the bridge had been raised no more than a quarter of the way up.

Said Seymour: "She panicked, she absolutely panicked. If she had stayed where she was, just standing where she was, she would have been OK, but she tried to get off the span.

"I've seen a lot of grisly sights, but I've never seen anything quite like that."

Seymour said he had seen the woman step onto the span after the crossing arms had been lowered on the roadway. He said that about a dozen people on the pier near him witnessed the accident.

The bridge - a two-lane steel deck roadway 510 feet long that spans the Duluth ship canal - rises to a height of 135 feet in 55 seconds. Motorists and pedestrians are warned of the bridge's rising by long and short horn blasts and bells before it goes up.

An operator on the bridge, who declined to talk about the accident, said last night that people occasionally are stranded on the bridge when it rises. He, too, said that the woman could have escaped injury if she had stayed where she was.

James Fields, manager of a nearby Burger King, said that about 150 people were in the popular Canal Park area near the bridge at the time of the accident. Many were drawn there by the sunny, breezy weather and by the annual Park Point Rummage Sale held along Minnesota Point, a residential spit of land that encloses Duluth harbor.

Minnesota Point can be reached only by crossing the bridge, which connects it to the mainland near downtown Duluth.

Duluth police, the Fire Department and the Coast Guard responded to the 11:49 a.m. call. Coast Guard vessels patrolled the area to direct boat traffic under the bridge.

The Aerial Lift Bridge has operated since 1930, rising thousands of times each year to admit commercial vessels and pleasure crafts into the harbor or Lake Superior.

Copyright (c) 1990, 2001 Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities
_______________________________________________________ June 12, 1990

Woman killed by bridge likely confused, kin says

A Duluth woman who was crushed Sunday in the city's Aerial Lift Bridge had a history of mental illness and probably became frightened and confused when the span began to rise to let a boat pass below, a relative and acquaintances said Monday.

Police identified the woman as Barbara Ann Paplior, 50, and said they don't know exactly where she had been living. But social workers said she was an "off and on" user of the emergency shelters and soup kitchens in downtown Duluth.

She "had a hard life," said Alana Paplior, a granddaughter of the victim's late husband. She said Barbara Ann Paplior had a history of mental illness that probably contributed to the accident.

"I don't think she knew what was going on," Alana Paplior said. "She must have been afraid and confused about what was happening."

Assistant City Attorney Bryan Brown said yesterday that a preliminary investigation indicated that both bridge operators checked to make sure no one was on the bridge deck before raising it and that Paplior probably walked past barricades and warning signals after the operators had checked.

The investigation is continuing, he said. The city-owned bridge connects Minnesota Point with the mainland and spans the Duluth ship canal between Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor.

Witnesses said that the victim was about 30 feet onto the bridge's pedestrian walkway, walking south toward Minnesota Point, when it began to rise and she appeared to become frightened.

She yelled for help and ran back north to the end of the bridge, where she apparently leaned over or prepared to jump and was crushed between the rising deck and cross members of the stationary superstructure, witnesses said. A Coast Guard official said her body was cut in two.

Officials said she would have been safe if she had stood still and "ridden" the bridge up and back down. Many years ago the city allowed pedestrians to do just that, but the practice was stopped, apparently to avoid accidents, said Richard Larson, director of the city's Public Works Department.

Larson said he knew of only two other fatal accidents involving the 85-year-old bridge: In 1982 a Grand Rapids man fell about 70 feet onto a concrete walkway after grabbing the bottom of the rising bridge deck and hanging on, apparently for a thrill. A similar accident reportedly occurred in the 1960s, he said.

The bridge consists of an upside-down "U" superstructure over the canal, and a movable two-lane steel deck roadway 510 feet long. The steel deck rises 135 feet from its normal position in about 55 seconds.

Before the bridge rises, boat traffic, motorists and pedestrians are warned by a loud horn, an alarm bell and barricades that come down. Operators have said that people occasionally get stuck on the bridge and aren't spotted but that it never before ended in a serious accident.

Social workers said yesterday that Paplior enjoyed frequent walks along the downtown ship canal and the harbor.

Kim Seitz, coordinator of the Central Hillside United Ministries drop-in center and emergency shelter, said Paplior was "friendly and kind" and sometimes used the emergency shelter.

Cathy Bergquist-Miller of the Union Gospel Mission said Paplior often ate at the mission and took part in prayer services. "She basically was a very happy person," said Bergquist-Miller.

Alana Paplior said the victim was the mother of six children who are scattered throughout the country and were not in touch with her often.

"She was kind of a street person," Alana Paplior said.

Copyright (c) 1990, 2001 Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities