10 years since accidental collapse of SPI bridge

A section of the Queen Isabella Causeway is shown missing as crews break from their search and rescue due to a strom in Port Isabella, Texas on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001. A group of barges smashed a 160-foot section out of the only bridge leading to popular South Padre Island early Saturday and at least four people died after their vehicles plunged into the water 85 feet below.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

September 15, 2011 5:04:41 AM PDT
South Padre Island Mayor Robert Pinkerton Jr. admits he does a double take when he sees barges and tugboats traveling near the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge.

It is not that the vessels fascinate him. He just remembers that it was a barge that hit the bridge on Sept. 15, 2001, bringing down a portion of the span and killing eight people.

Until then, it was known as the Queen Isabella Causeway. It was renamed in 2003 in honor of the victims.

"When I see tugboats and barges coming down the channel I look at them more than I normally did in the past," Pinkerton said.

The accident occurred 10 years ago, when, in the early-morning hours, a 240-foot section of the causeway was knocked out when a tugboat pushing four steel-laden barges lost control and steered the load into a concrete support column.

Six vehicles drove into the void. Only three people were pulled from the water alive.

For several days law enforcement agencies and other rescue personnel searched the murky waters of the Laguna Madre for victims. The last body was recovered Sept. 24.

Killed were Robert "Bob" Harris, Hector Martinez Jr., "Harpoon" Barry Welch and Chelsea Welch, all of Port Isabel; Julio Mireles of Los Fresnos; Robin Leavell of Mercedes; Stvan Francisco Rivas of Humble; and Gaspar S. Hinojosa of Kingsville.

"It's has made the Island more aware of how important a second causeway will be again, in more ways than one," Pinkerton said. "I have lived here since 1973 and never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that a span like that would collapse with a hit from a barge."

He thought such a disaster might come from "a storm or something to that effect."

Within seven hours, officials activated a plan to transport people to and from the Island. Local fishing guides pitched in, allowing their vessels to be used as ferries for both passengers and goods, Dan Quandt, executive director of South Padre Island's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.

There were many Mexican tourists on the Island celebrating the Diez y Seis holiday, and officials said they used the ferries to transport the visitors back and forth.

Quandt said that before the disaster, Island officials had hurricane plans ready and that nobody ever really talked about the possibility of the causeway collapsing, although they had discussed the need for a second bridge.

"You really learn that you can be challenged by the circumstances, but at the time it created a true sense of community not just with South Padre Island but Port Isabel," Quandt said.

The rebuilding of the bridge began shortly after it collapsed. Predicted to be completed in December 2001, the causeway reopened before schedule, during the Thanksgiving holiday.

New security measures were included in the rebuilding project.

A fiber-optic warning system has been installed on the bridge, which is supposed to warn motorists if something happens to the bridge. There are also crossing arms that block bridge entrances.

The warning system is checked periodically to ensure that it is operating correctly. Signs and warning lights are posted along the bridge advising drivers to immediately stop if the lights are flashing.

A sort of "fender bender system" was also installed around the columns at the base of the causeway pillars, which make it difficult for a barge to strike the bridge.

Several lawsuits were filed against the Brownwater Marine Service Company, which owned the tugboat. Most of the lawsuits were settled in June 2005.

A May 2005 U.S. Coast Guard report about the collapse found that the tugboat captain failed to prepare for a turn toward the causeway, which caused the crash into the bridge. It also took issue with the tugboat's horsepower.

"I would venture to say before Sept. 15, 2001 the causeway was a mode of transportation. It was a way to get from Point A to Point B. But now it is symbolic, too, of not just a horrible wrenching apart, but of a coming back together," Quandt said.

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