WASHINGTON -- U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters doesn't hesitate when asked her worst day in office. She was home in her native Arizona last Aug. 1 when she got the jarring phone call from Washington.
The eight-lane Interstate 35 bridge near downtown Minneapolis had collapsed, hurtling cars, drivers and passengers into the Mississippi River. Thirteen died; 145 were injured. News channels were broadcasting video of concrete slabs buckling and disappearing into the abyss. Overlooking the scene the next morning, she struggled to absorb the disaster.
"I was absolutely sick," she recalls. "I wondered, 'How did it fail? Will others fail?' It was crushing."
As Cabinet positions go, running the Department of Transportation typically is not a high-visibility job. But a stream of events, and Peters' own drive, have kept her in the spotlight since she took the job 16 months ago. In the last six months alone, she has confronted the Minneapolis bridge collapse, charges of a dangerous shortage of air traffic controllers and the most onerous airline flight delays on record.
It's heady stuff for a plain-spoken and slightly unorthodox Harley-Davidson-riding Republican who first came to Washington six years ago to run the Federal Highway Administration. Peters, 59, now leads a Cabinet agency with 60,000 workers and a $70 billion budget.
Her rise is even more remarkable for her past: a determined climb out of a working-class life that could have been a dead end.
Mary Elizabeth Peters' parents divorced when she was 6, and her father raised four children in Phoenix. At 17, Peters wed boyfriend Terry Peters, a Marine as her father had been. By the time she was 30, they had three kids and were living in his hometown of Logansport, Ind. The biggest employer was a meatpacking plant, Wilson Foods. She and Terry applied.
The unionized plant paid $10 an hour, a lot for a factory job in 1980. To make that, she had to perform the same grisly, physically demanding work as the men did on the kill floor where hogs were stunned with an electric prod, bled out and cut up for packaging.
"It was very, very hard work, a dangerous occupation," she says. She still has scars where knives missed their mark.
Her son Terry Jr., now the Seattle manager for a payroll processing firm, says his mother's success has surprised even him. But, he says, "She is one of the hardest-working people I have ever come across. I'm only 35. She gets up earlier and stays up later than I do."
Terry Jr. says his mother rises early to work out in the gym and listens to Bruce Springsteen on her iPod. He says people are surprised when they learn how down-to-earth she is. "People have this perception that we are this privileged family, until they get to know us."
Husband Terry Peters, semi-retired and living in suburban Phoenix, declined an interview request. Mary Peters said they commute between Washington and Phoenix so he can live near their children and grandchildren.