Moment of Remembrance: Ceremony held for causeway collapse victims

Brownsville Fire Department honor guard member Juan J. Garcia holds out the Texas flag Tuesday morning at the memorial ceremony for the 19th anniversary of the Queen Isabella Causeway collapse at the Port Isabel Event & Cultural Center.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

City officials, first responders, loved ones, and family members of survivors and those lost in the Sept. 15, 2001, collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway gathered at the Port Isabel Event & Cultural Center on Tuesday in memory of the eight lives lost that night.

Stvan Rivas, Robert Harris, Hector Martinez, “Harpoon” Barry Welch, Chelsea Welch, Julio Mireles, Robin Leavell, and Gaspar Hinojosa were killed as their cars sped over the edge of two collapsed spans, dropping at least 70 feet into the water below.

The barge that struck the bridge’s center pylons caused a 240-foot section to fall at the peak of its incline. Drivers, crossing the causeway at night, could not see the gap in the road.

Authorities recovered five vehicles. Three people survived. The causeway was later renamed to Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge following a bill proposed by state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. in honor of those affected by the disaster.

Tuesday’s ceremony began with a prayer led by Lighthouse Assembly of God Pastor Steven Hyde, followed by a procession and moment of silence featuring the Brownsville Fire Department Honor Guard.

Officials who spoke at the ceremony honored the spirit of the Laguna Madre community and recalled a unified response both in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and in the months and years following.

Those who arrived on scene that night recalled seeing boats already attempting to rescue people from the water.

South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty told the crowd, “We always remember the impact that this tragedy had on Port Isabel and South Padre Island. It was devastating.”

“Both Port Isabel and SPI worked together as one and we became one community. We shared in the grief of mourning the victims.”

Stephen Murphy, a long-time Island resident and boat captain, was one of the first on scene providing search and rescue. The mayor said of Murphy, “Stephen and his crew worked tirelessly that night and morning.”

“And when that duty came to an end, he didn’t stop serving the community but instead returned to the dock to begin ferrying people to and from the island. It is these selfless acts of kindness that pull our community together.”

Private vessels and Texas Department of Transportation ferries began arriving to shuttle people across the Laguna Madre until the causeway reopened on Nov. 21, 2001.

McNulty, like Port Isabel City Manger Jared Hockema, said Monday night’s bomb threat and closure served as a grim reminder that Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge is the only link between the Island and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley, and that a second access needs to be facilitated.

Port Isabel City Commissioner, Place 2 Carmen Rios spoke on behalf of Mayor J.J. Zamora. She called on the community to never forget the lives lost. “I know in my heart that we will forever remember this day, along with 9/11,” said Rios.

“Let’s remember [the lives lost] by spreading kindness, words of encouragement, or doing good deeds, because that is what happened that awful day. Our city and our surrounding cities — people came together, mourned together, and helped each other in any way they possibly could.”

Rios read the names of each victim, adding, “Let’s not forget the surviving miracles, because it was a miracle that we had survivors of Rene Mata, Bridget Goza, and Gustavo Morales.”

Gustavo Morales attended the ceremony and stood up as his name was called. Rios finished, “I believe in angels, and they are among us. So let’s remember this and be kind. Thank you.”

Pastor Hyde finished Tuesday’s memorial with a benediction. Before the prayer, he recalled encountering “Harpoon” Barry Welch every Sunday morning before his congregation arrived at the church.

Welch would knock at the door, and although he was not a churchgoing man, he still took interest in Hyde’s teachings. One day, he showed up with Chelsea, and several weeks later, Hyde married them. He also baptized their son, William.

“Yes, it was a sad thing because I was called on to do their funeral also. But, to see the joy they were able to share in life before they were taken — it was a neat experience to see that God was able to do something before their lives were taken,” said Hyde.

“They were able to experience oneness. So as we get ready to leave here today, may God restore our love for God, family, and country.”

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com