South Padre pauses to remember bridge collapse
Eight people were killed when cars plunged off the causeway.
By Lynn Brezosky
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — On the night the bridge collapsed, their vehicles suddenly plunging 80 feet into the churning bay below, those who didn’t make it simply were on their way home: the beloved city fire chief; the local surfing legend and his wife; friends out for a night on the island after a Friday night football game; workers returning to the mainland after their late shift.”
Three people survived the Sept. 15, 2001, collapse of the only bridge to South Padre Island, able to escape after their vehicles flew into a yawning gap that opened on the bridge when barges struck a concrete support piling.
Eight did not.
They were remembered Thursday at a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of a tragedy that left a painful scar on a pair of communities most known for sunshine and frivolity.
“It is impossible not to remember what happened every time we drive over this bridge,” said Joe Vega, mayor of Port Isabel, the city on the mainland side of the 2.37-mile causeway. “Never in my lifetime have I experienced a tragedy that affected so many people in our community.”
Vega was one of those speaking at the service, held by the eight-sided memorial on the island side of what’s now called the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway.
A local official sounded taps. A U.S. Border Patrol agent played the bagpipes, another sang the national anthem. Coast Guard members and local police and fire departments lined up in uniform.
Family members of the victims clutched red roses.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, presented a Texas flag to 12-year-old William Welch, who was 2 when both of his parents died in the collapse.
The Rev. Gaspar Hinojosa II, whose father was in the “little blue car trapped on the pillars,” recalled how his father fought to stay alive.
It took nearly two weeks to recover all the bodies from the underwater tangle of concrete and rebar that crashed into the water after a barge full of steel hit a support piling.
During that time, families and friends watched anxiously from the foot of the broken bridge, some from a fishing pier stretching out closer to the cranes and Navy divers.
Killed were Robert Harris, 46, Hector Martinez, 32, “Harpoon” Barry Welch, 53, Chealsa Welch, 23, all of Port Isabel; Julio Mireles, 23, of Los Fresnos; Robin Leavell, 29, of Mercedes; Stvan Rivas, 22, of Humble, and Gaspar Hinojosa, 52, of Kingsville.
A Coast Guard inquiry blamed the disaster on pilot error.
Navigators know of the sharp “S” curve leading up to the bridge, on the night in question, the currents were strong and the tug boat captain lost control of the string of barges he was pushing. A barge rammed a support piling 100 yards from the opening.
There was a thud and then the thunderous sound of two 80-foot slabs of roadway crashing into the water. Fishermen witnessed headlights, and then tail lights, disappearing into the night before realizing what had happened. They shined lights to warn motorists still on the bridge, and raced to pull survivors out of the bay.
“The bridge was broken. Cars were plunging off,” local resident Valerie Bates recalled. Another 80-foot slab fell the next morning.
Then-Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa got the first call minutes after the 2 a.m. collapse. The causeway had collapsed and some believed it was a terrorist attack, coming just four days after 9/11.
That was what ran through most people’s minds, just four days after 9/11. The Gulf IntraCoastal Waterway, the deeper midsection of the Laguna Madre bay, ran clear up the coast to the refineries of Corpus Christi; the enemy could have been targeting U.S. oil and gas.
But by the second call, Hinojosa knew it was an accident.
He was chilled at the recollection of a meeting he’d had 48 hours earlier with then-South Padre Island Mayor Ed Cyganiewicz, who’d come pleading for the county to commit to a second bridge.
“‘You know a barge could hit the causeway,’ the mayor told me. I said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’”
Even after the last vehicle was pulled out, the problems of having one of the state’s top destinations cut off remained.
Tourists were trapped on the island, those that had vehicles with them had to wait for a makeshift ferry landing to be built before they could return home. Restaurant and hotel workers were laid off, creating a crisis as the employees struggled with daily expenses.
School children had to be ferried by boat to classes on the mainland. The county lost millions of dollars in sales tax revenue.
Cameron County officials are still weighing possible routes for a second bridge.
“I think there’s a tremendous need for a second crossing,” said County Judge Carlos Cascos. “But at the end of the day, we’re still going to have to figure out at some point how to pay for it.”
Cyganiewicz on Thursday spoke emotionally of how the island’s small supermarket helped with food, and how people offered their homes to tourists who didn’t have funds for extended hotel stays.
“The good that came out of it is we became a stronger community, and we became a closer community,” he said.