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Deadly Texas Bridge Collapse Was Overshadowed By 9/11 Attacks


When the anniversary of 9/11 comes around every year, South Texans are reminded of another catastrophe that happened very close to that date. Eight people died when the Queen Isabella Causeway collapsed. It's a bridge that connects the mainland town of Port Isabel with South Padre Island at the tip of Texas. That accident happened 20 years ago today. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

PATRICK MURPHY: All right, ladies and gentlemen, we're getting ready to leave the dock...

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: On Captain Patrick Murphy's Isla Tour, passengers will see dolphins swimming alongside the boat, the SpaceX launch facility, the Brownsville Ship Channel and the site of the causeway disaster.

MURPHY: Now, on September the 15, 2001, around 2 o'clock in the morning, a barge struck, causing two 85-foot sections of the causeway to collapse into the water. Now, five cars went over the edge. Eight people were killed, and you had three survivors. Now, the cause of the accident was...

BURNETT: One of the three survivors is Gustavo Morales, now a 56-year-old soccer referee living in Austin. He was driving home across the 2 1/2-mile bridge after closing up the restaurant where he was manager. Suddenly, there was no more pavement - only void. His red Chevy pickup plunged 80 feet into the warm waters of the Laguna Madre.

GUSTAVO MORALES: Those three seconds, I mean, I remember going like a roller coaster, face down, suddenly with no brake at all and grabbing the wheel. I hit the water. My pickup didn't submerge right away. I got out of the vehicle through the windows. Thank God the windows were manual.

BURNETT: He swam out of the window and broke the surface. In the starry sky above, he could make out the outline of the causeway bridge and the huge section that was missing.

MORALES: That was when I realized, OK, something happened here. At that moment, I thought it was another terrorist attack because it was four days after the 9/11.

BURNETT: A Coast Guard investigation would later determine that a tugboat pushing four loaded barges struck a support column, causing two massive segments at the top of the bridge to fall. Investigators blamed the accident on an unusually strong current and high tide and the tug captain's poor seamanship. But the calamity is not well-known outside of South Texas because it happened at a time when Americans were reeling from the worst attack on their homeland since Pearl Harbor.

ROBERTO ESPERICUETA: Had 9/11 not happened, this would have made national news everywhere - absolutely. Everybody knows South Padre Island.

BURNETT: Roberto Espericueta happened to be night fishing with his cousins under the bridge. They're credited with rescuing the survivors. Recalling that night, sitting in a Mexican restaurant, Espericueta says he, too, thought that al-Qaida had bombed the causeway.

ESPERICUETA: Everybody was on high alert. All of our port of entries were closed. So for the first 30 minutes of the accident, I thought we were under attack.

BURNETT: The Queen Isabella Causeway, named for the 15th-century Spanish queen, is the only road to the island, so no one could get on or off until officials scrambled to arrange a ferry service. Some 2,000 tourists were stranded on this barrier island, popular for beachcombing, saltwater fishing and carousing. Ed Cyganiewicz was mayor in 2001. Today, he's the island's municipal judge.

ED CYGANIEWICZ: I was so proud of the way our community reacted - just, like, people picking up other people to get a shuttle, you know, everyone helping each other out, volunteering food, local residents saying, hey, you tourists, you could, you know, stay at our house. And it made us closer as a community.

BURNETT: The causeway was repaired and reopened in a record two months and renamed the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway for the fatalities. Now emergency barriers block the lanes if there's trouble on the bridge.

CYGANIEWICZ: Quite honestly, living out here, there's not a day that goes by that I drive over that causeway where it doesn't cross my mind. No matter what music you're listening to or even if there's someone in the vehicle with you, there's a point where it always comes back to me.

BURNETT: The city of South Padre Island is holding a remembrance ceremony today at the entrance to the causeway. Though the nation has not acknowledged this tragedy, the community never forgets.

John Burnett, NPR News, South Padre Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "TENDER SOULS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett is a national correspondent based in Austin, Texas, who has been assigned a new beat for 2022—Polarized America—to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.