By Gaige Davila
The City of Port Isabel hosted this year’s memorial ceremony for the 19th anniversary of the Queen Isabella Causeway Collapse, the morning after a bomb threat closed the bridge for more than eight hours.
City leaders both South Padre Island and Port Isabel, some of them having spent the entire night at either base of the Causeway as agencies surveyed the bridge for explosives this past Monday night, attended and spoke about the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2001, and their lasting impact on the area.
“Both Port Isabel and SPI worked together as one and we became one community,” South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty said. “We shared in the grief of mourning the victims.”
Pastor Steven Hyde from the Lighthouse Assembly of God church, before giving the ceremony’s benediction, mentioned his relationship with two of the Causeway collapse’s victims, “Harpoon” Barry and Chelsea Welch, who Hyde married. Hyde even blessed their son, William, shortly after his birth. Hyde then led Barry and Chelsea’s funeral services.
“To see the joy they were able to share in life, before they were taken, it was a neat experience, to see God was able to do something, before their lives were taken, they experienced oneness,” Hyde said.
At the ceremony was the father of survivor Gustavo Morales Jr., Gustavo Morales Sr., who said his son, who usually attends the annual memorial ceremony, had since moved to Austin.
Morales told attending media members that he would attend subsequent ceremonies in his place, calling his son’s survival a miracle. He was bruised in several areas of his body, but had no significant injuries. Morales Jr., just days after the accident, told the Houston Chronicle in 2001 from his bed, “at least I’m alive.”
The Welch’s, then-Port Isabel Fire Chief Robert Harris, Hector Martinez Jr., from Port Isabel; Julio Mireles, from Los Fresnos; Robin Leavell, from Mercedes; Gaspar S. Hinojosa, from Kingsville; and Stvan Francisco Rivas, from Humble, died that night.
Morales Jr. is one of three survivors, with Brigette Goza and Rene Mata.
Monday night’s bomb threat received a large response from area first responders, as traffic continued to build from both sides of the Causeway.
Drivers attempting to travel to Port Isabel or South Padre Island were stuck for the entirety of the Sept. 14 closure. As traffic congested past Gomez Street in Port Isabel, some drivers turned around, others turned off their cars after pulling over on the side of Highway 100 and several parked throughout Port Isabel’s streets to sleep. The Causeway was reopened around 4:20 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
The Causeway was closed by Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers after an anonymous caller told an Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatcher a bomb was under the bridge just before 8 p.m., Port Isabel Police Department Chief Robert Lopez told the PRESS. The threat was forwarded to South Padre Island Police Department, then to PIPD.
DPS closed both lanes of the Causeway around 8:30 p.m., with DPS and PIPD squad cars blocking Tarnava and Garcia streets.
By 10:58 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard cleared the bottom of the Causeway while TxDOT continued surveying the top, according to South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty in a Facebook post.
Sometime around 1 a.m., Brownsville Police Department’s (BPD) bomb squad launched a drone to survey the Causeway. By nearly 3 a.m., DPS was still investigating the Causeway.
In a Facebook Live video from the City of Port Isabel’s Facebook page, City Manager Jared Hockema, standing by the base of the Causeway while authorities surveyed the bridge, said there was no indication that the threat and the anniversary were related.
“I hope it’s just a cruel coincidence,” Hockema said. “It’s obviously an event that’s etched into our minds. (It’s) still raw for so many of us.”
Nineteen years before, a barge, being pushed by a tugboat, Brown Water V, collided with a supporting column of the Causeway just after 2 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2001, causing a 160-to-180-foot section of the bridge to collapse into the bay below. Later that morning, another 60-foot section fell. Nine cars drove into the water, all going towards Port Isabel, as the captain of Brown Water V flashed the boat’s searchlights towards the gap in 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 Sept. 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, the U.S. Coast Guard report on the accident states. One boat rescued the survivors, its owner fishing late at night when they saw the middle of the Causeway fall. They were likely the first watercraft on the scene, reports showed.
Travel to and from South Padre Island was possible only by ferry or private watercraft for two months. Then, a month ahead of schedule, the Causeway was repaired and reopened on Nov. 21, 2001.
But for Carolina Martinez, Hector Martinez’s Jr.’s sister, the seemingly endless night hurt twofold.
““The bomb threat brought so much anger and even fear into me,” Martinez said. “I was already preparing myself for the anniversary of the Causeway collapse and I had my brother on my mind all day. It scared me.”
Trying to get to her home on South Padre Island, Martinez and her husband were stranded in Port Isabel, flooded with memories of the same night nineteen years ago.
On Sept. 15, Martinez was driving from Aransas Pass, Texas, to visit her family, specifically her father’s house on Jefferson Street in Port Isabel, getting there around 11:30 p.m. Just after 2 a.m., Martinez heard a loud sound, later learning the Causeway had just collapsed.
“I immediately called my brother’s cell, no answer,” Martinez said. “I felt a panic immediately, because he had never once not answered when I called his phone.”
Hector, who worked at Sea Ranch Restaurant and other restaurants on the Island, usually left work late, then would stay out with coworkers or friends, often returning home around 2 a.m.
Martinez’s father and Hector Jr.’s mother—the siblings shared the same father only—tried to reach Hector’s cell phone, but all of the calls went straight to voicemail. They knew then, Martinez said, that he was gone.
Days after the collapse, Hector’s car was pulled from the bay, one of the last vehicles recovered. Hector’s father was called to identify his son’s body, telling authorities it was him once he saw his son’s car. Hector Sr. positively identified Hector Jr.’s body at the scene.
It took four years for Martinez to drive over the Causeway again, she said, admitting she broke down after doing so.
“It still is very hard for me, especially when there is traffic and I’m stuck on that part of the bridge.”
Martinez remembers her brother fondly, saying they shared a strong bond regardless of their growing up in separate cities. Hector was raised in Port Isabel while Martinez grew up in Houston.
“My brother was full of life and always had a smile,” Martinez said. “His laugh was so loud that it made you laugh.”
She continued, “Nothing but love is what he was about. Never did have a brother-sister fight. It was always “Hi, sis, how’s my little sister doing?’ Not many people in Port Isabel knew we were siblings or even related.”
One memory of Hector stands out for Martinez in particular, when she moved back to Port Isabel at 14-years-old.
“He came to see me and we sat on the front porch of my grandpa’s house and we laughed and cried from laughing so much,” Martinez said. “He said to me, ‘Sis, I’m so happy that I have close to me now. Get ready to have fun cause we’re going to party.’ He was a Martinez: happy, full of life and always with his jokes. Just an amazing person.”
This year Martinez didn’t attend the memorial ceremony, opting to stay home after being frightened from the night before. Regardless, Martinez said the ceremonies were important, because the memories, though nearly twenty years old, are vivid still.
“The families who lost loved ones, we get together that day and the tears are the same as the day of the collapse,” Martinez said. “The pain is the same.”
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