Photos and words by Gaige Davila
Though the now-named Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway collapsed 20 years ago, for many it might as well have been yesterday.
That’s how it feels for Robert Espericueta and Tony Salinas, two of the four men who saved the three survivors of the collapse. On the twentieth anniversary of the collapse, they were on a boat, just as they were 20 years ago, just yards from the pillars that hold the base of the Causeway.
Back then, however, only the pillars were there. The middle section of the Causeway was in the water below them.
Espericueta, Salinas and Roland Moya and Leeroy Moya, Espericueta’s cousins, incidentally became the heroes of the Causeway’s collapse, rescuing Brigette Goza, Rene Mata and Gustavo Morales long before the U.S. Coast Guard or other rescue teams arrived.
“They were, in essence, the first responders,” State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. said during the city’s 20th annual memorial service later that morning.
A short, quiet boat ride from Lobo Del Mar brought the men back under the Causeway. Salinas, holding a wreath of roses, and Espericueta, holding a bag of rose petals, released their tributes to those they couldn’t save, quietly reminiscing on the night neither have forgotten for 20 years.
By 9:20 a.m., around 6 boats gathered at the base of the Causeway, sounding their fog horns, in remembrance of the eight who died in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2001: Gaspar Hinojosa, Port Isabel Fire Chief Robert “Bob” Harris, Chelsea and “Harpoon” Barry Welch, Stvan Francisco Rivas, Robin Leavell, Hector Martinez Jr, and Julio Mireles.
Until this year, Espericueta had not been on the Laguna Madre in almost two decades before collaborating with Joshua Moroles on a podcast to tell his story. The podcast has evolved into a documentary chronicling the Causeway’s collapse, winning Best Feature documentary for both the New York Movie Awards and the New York Neorealism Film Awards so far.
Espericueta telling that story, on a larger platform, is what led him back to the Laguna Madre 20 years later.
“I’m at ease with it now,” Espericueta said as he looked out on the bay, his wife Judy by his side. “It feels surreal, because that night was probably still the scariest thing I have witnessed and experienced.”
“To see cars come off of (the Causeway), not being able to do anything, that’s the ugliest thing anybody can witness.”
“The True Story of the Queen Isabella Causeway Collapse” podcast has given listeners an idea of what Espericueta, Salinas, the survivors and the victims went through, more so than before, when information was limited to news articles and official reports. The podcast and documentary collects interviews from people impacted by the collapse and examines documents from the class action lawsuit brought against Brown Water Marine Services, the operator of the tugboat that collided with the Causeway causing its collapse.
The podcast has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and started a renewed interest in the Causeway collapse. But for the rescuers, survivors and victim’s families, it’s never gone away.
U.S. Army Sgt. Joe McClendon, Chelsea Welch’s brother and “Harpoon” Welch’s brother-in-law, led a four-horse procession as head of the 1st Cavalry Division, based out of Ft. Hood, as part of the ceremony’s Color Guard. Afterwards, McClendon addressed the attendees.
“That day sits in the back of my mind every day,” McClendon told the crowd after the ceremony. He was 17 years old when his sister and brother-in-law were killed in the Causeway’s collapse 20 years ago.
“Seeing the agony that everybody was going through, not only in our family, but in the families of all the victims, I’ll never forget it.”
For Espericueta, the podcast and documentary have helped release him from the traumas he experienced that night: burns from a dripping flare; overwhelming gasoline inhalation; seeing cars plunge into the Laguna Madre; the survivors’ blood pooling in his boat and so on.
“Having been unable to share the story is like having a pebble in your shoe, and I finally got it out,” Espericueta said. “So I’m not walking with that limp anymore.”
“I’ve been telling my kids, since they were very, very young, that (this story) was going to be a documentary or a movie, or something as simple as a book or a podcast, so now that it’s done, twenty years have come and gone, I feel completely at ease and kind of fulfilled already. I think finally this chapter of the bridge and what happened with the things that took place after, they end for me today. Today’s closure.”
On a shuttle ride over to the ceremony, Teri Murphy introduced herself to the Espericuetas, saying she was good friends with the survivors, and one of the victims, thanking Robert through tears for saving her friends. The Espericuetas, who had not attended the city’s annual ceremony in 15 years, were being recognized by people they walked past, shaking hands and receiving more thanks.
Salinas, who had not attended the ceremony in 10 years, said he hadn’t found closure yet, but that the podcast, which he is a guest on, has alleviated some of the traumas he experienced 20 years ago. At the ceremony, he ran into Gustavo Morales at the memorial marker in Memorial Park, an octogonal slab of granite with the names of the Causeway collapse victims. Morales had not been to the ceremony in a few years, after moving from Brownsville to Austin, Texas. The two men spoke of that night, laughing and rediscovering what they had forgotten as they told each other their stories.
“I feel like it happened yesterday, to be honest,” Salinas said. “Every time I cross over the bridge it’s a remembrance of what happened that night. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
The pain may have not passed for everyone, but Salinas’ sentiment is mutual for all who endured the Causeway collapse. At lunch after the ceremony, Moroles asked Espericueta and Morales, “do y’all feel 20 years has passed?”
“I don’t,” they both answered in unison.
The documentary, titled “The Collapse: The True Story of the Queen Isabella Causeway Collapse,” will be screened at several film festivals later this year.
Editor’s note: Gaige Davila is featured in the documentary “The Collapse: The True Story of the Queen Isabella Causeway Collapse.”