Eighteen years later: Thoughts on the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway collapse

By GAIGE DAVILA

editor@portisabelsouthpadre.com

The Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway is seen from Adams Street in Port Isabel on September 10, 2019. The replaced section and reinforced columns can be seen in the middle of the bridge. Photo by Gaige Davila.

I am sure my memory starts at age five, though I likely have memories from well before then. But my older memories do not have discernible metrics of time that were present then: no clocks or calendars, no acid wash, no sharp versus rounded lines of older and newer cars, and no Keith Haring-esque designs.

I am sure my memory starts at age five, because Adams Street in Port Isabel still has one of the best unobstructed, publicly-accessible views of the Causeway from Port Isabel. When I saw the Causeway with its middle section gone, from the back seat of my mother’s car, Adams Street was my vantage point. With the empty space between the Causeway as a discernible metric of the year 2001, I experienced what would be my “first” memory and first momentary lapse of reason.

I’d spent almost no time thinking about the Causeway’s collapse until I moved back home this year. But when I returned, and drove on the Causeway for the first time, and felt the bump separating the original pavement of the Causeway to the segment constructed in November 2001, I remembered how much the bridge scared me.

For most of my childhood, I’d look at each of the double-bulbed warning lights, placed after the Causeway collapse to warn drivers of damage to the bridge, hoping they would not turn on, during any drive over the Causeway.

Driving on the replaced/ repaired segment felt strange, too: your car’s tires make a different sound, a sound much louder and consistent, like running water or rushing wind. It made no difference knowing I was driving on the bridge, because it sounded like I was under it.

There are people alive today who knows what it sounds like under the Causeway, who have heard the wind and the water, and who I hoped to feature in this issue of the Parade/ PRESS. I wanted these features to focus on their day-to-day lives and personalities, not rehash the trauma, as so many Texas publications do every September, robotically describing what happened, who died, and who didn’t. But after I contacted one survivor, and after not hearing back from them, I decided to abandon the article: their lives are not my stories to tell, nor am I entitled to hear them, even if for my own curiosity.

So, last week, I spent an entire work day reading material from the first half decade of the 2000’s: news articles on the Causeway collapse; the class action lawsuits against Brown Water, the company who owns the still-operating tugboat that ran the barge into the Causeway, Brown Water V; the U.S. Coast Guard’s investigation; the subsequent comments and analysis by the Coast Guard; and the news articles after the bridge was reopened, accompanied by genuinely beautiful photos of the Causeway’s reopening a month ahead of schedule, with the crews who rebuilt it waving the first cars through the Causeway, from the San Antonio Express-News.

The cause of the collapse is widely known: a barge collided with a supporting column of the Causeway just after 2:00 a.m. on September 15, 2001, causing a 160-to-180-foot section of the bridge to collapse into the bay below. Nine cars drove into the water as the captain of Brown Water V tried to flash the tugboats’ searchlights towards the open segment of the Causeway. As the relief captain came into the tugboat’s wheelhouse a few moments after the collapse, the captain behind the wheel, in hysterics, said, “I can’t get the cars to stop,” according to a report by the Houston Chronicle.

Several factors directly contributed to the collapse, namely the current Brown Water V experienced leaving the Long Island Village channel towards the Causeway, which pushed the tugboat and barge northeast, causing the tugboat and barge to miss their path by 520 feet. Brown Water V had its heavier barges in the front, likely making steering the load difficult, and the tugboat likely did not have enough horsepower for its nearly 3,000 gross tons of internal volume. The Causeway’s navigation lights, specifically its green centering lights, were not working on September 15, 2001. All 12 of these lights were found to be broken, with no one knowing when the lights broke, because the State of Texas had no inspection or preventative maintenance program for bridge lighting at the time. One boat rescued the survivors, its owner fishing late at night when they saw the bridge fall. They were likely the first watercraft on the scene, reports showed.

I never knew the details found in the investigation and news articles. It doesn’t seem like most people here do either, other than those who were there, those who had lost someone, or nearly did, or who were economically affected. That being said, that September in 2001 was likely the most confusing period of time this area had experienced. Information, news, official reports, and rumors crossed very blurred lines, from what I’ve been told about that month.

This week, I encourage you to read more on what happened that night, specifically the investigation, or ask locals what they remember from that day. It is important not to forget what happened, but it is equally important to learn why and how it happened, too. Few people watched the bridge come down, but those who did understand its longstanding effects, and the imprint the memory had on their lives personally, and to the progress of the city. I think we owe it to those who died to understand and consider these memories, too.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.portisabelsouthpadre.com/2019/09/13/eighteen-years-later-thoughts-on-the-queen-isabella-memorial-causeway-collapse/

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