Harrowing Survival Tale In Bridge Collapse

Bill Wagner
Bill Wagner

(CBS) -- Bill Wagner says he's "real stiff, I'm real sore, but I'm really happy to be alive."

And no wonder: Wagner was among the dozens inured when the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River on Wednesday at the height of rush hour in Minneapolis. Several people lost their lives.

Wagner, 46, of Minneapolis, was driving his United Parcel Service truck on the span when it gave way.

"I worked with a guy for about five years (when he worked delivering Tastee cakes) in another truck that had passed me," he told co-anchor Harry Smith on The Early Show Friday. "He, in fact, ended up dying and burning to death. But he let me over."

Wagner was speaking from the Hennepin County Medical Center. He's recovering from broken ribs and a punctured lung.

Just before the collapse, Wagner says, he was in visual contact with a school bus, some of whose occupants were using sign language to encourage him to honk his horn, as youngsters often do to truckers, and he was complying. The 60 people on the bus also wound up being rescued.

"As I was going across the bridge, I had looked down at the falls," Wagner said. "I was thinking to myself, you know, 'Jeez, I hope this bridge doesn't cave in, because I don't want to go down into the falls.' And it wasn't two seconds later, all of a sudden, the bridge started to rattle like -- as if you were in an earthquake. And then it started kind of swaying side-to-side. And before I knew it, I was looking ahead. And what I saw were steel girders. And then I realized real quick that, if I'm seeing steel girders, that means the bridge is going down, and I'm on the bridge going down with it."

At that point, says Wanger, he "absolutely" thought he was going to die. "The weird thing is, as I was going down, I was thinking I was gonna die, but it -- you know, I wasn't afraid. I just -- I just came to that realization, I was gonna die, and that was it."

Wagner's truck then tumbled over, falling several feet before coming to a halt.

"I was upside down and I undid my harness," Wagner recalled. "Then, I realized diesel was pouring inside the cab. As weird as it was, the truck kept running. And the thought in my mind is, you know, diesel doesn't burn real easy, but it was pouring in on the engine, and it was kind of pouring all over inside the cab, and I thought, 'Man, I'd better shut this engine off.' And I turned the key off. And then I proceeded to climb out of the truck."

Wagner says the real miracle in all this "was all the people that were there to help. It seemed to me that -- you know, we always talk about 'Minnesota nice.' And I gotta tell you, that day, that day there were so many people that -- they weren't thinking about themselves."

Wagner agreed wholeheartedly with Smith's assessment that he's "one of the lucky ones, that's for sure."

"I just," Wagner concluded, "I can't tell you how thankful I am to be here."

Posted by KO

The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.