Amid the chaos that fateful morning of Sept. 15, 2001, something else was amiss, Port Isabel EMS Director Charlie Wood recalled – Port Isabel Fire Marshall Bob Harris wasn’t among the first responders at that tragic scene. “Everyone was wondering where he was because he was always at our calls. He was the first person there. He was never, not on a call, and that’s when we started putting everything together and realized that Bob may have been a victim of the collapse.”
It wasn’t until hours later that they confirmed the horrible truth: Bob Harris was among those who perished when a section of the Queen Isabella Causeway collapsed upon being struck by a barge in the wee hours of the morning 13 years ago this past Monday. Harris was on the Island, en route to the scene of what he was told was an accident on the causeway. He, nor the other victims that morning, could have ever fathomed that the darkened causeway had lost an entire section toward the peak of the bridge.
“He (Bob) Harris was stuck there for almost two weeks. We couldn’t even look towards that direction because it was so hard. Now, every time we cross the causeway, it’s hard because those thoughts come back. We lost lives – friends, relatives, residents, loved ones; just crossing the causeway brings back those memories,” said Port Isabel City Manager Edward Mesa.
Meza, Wood, along with Port Isabel Police Capitan Daniel Marchan were among the family and friends who paid tribute to the victims during a moment of silence Monday morning held at the foot of the causeway in Port Isabel where a special memorial to the victims has been erected. “We undergo all kinds of training, but we never expected the bridge to collapse the way it did. But the good thing is that we had learned prior to the incident, but we never had put it into play on this scale, was how all the agencies worked together, and they knew their role. Everybody knew what to do and helped each other in any way we could,” Marchan said.
Immediately after the ceremony, which was threatened by fittingly overcast skies, Port Isabel Major Joe Vega couldn’t hold back tears when speaking about the victims, especially Hector Martinez Jr., who was a high school classmate of Vega’s.
Port Isabel Place 4 City Commissioner Guillermo “Memo” Torres also reflected on the day. “It’s something we don’t want to remember, but it’s something that you tend to remember, and it hits you. It hits everybody, especially in Port Isabel and this area, because many the people that died were from here,” the commissioner said.
Vega recalled that he was in Houston the morning of the incident, recovering from donating one of his kidneys to his father. It wasn’t until a week later before the Mayor was well enough to be released and return to the area to survey the devastation first hand.
Major Vega, along with Meza searched for positive of what came out of such a tragedy and found that amidst the devastation, the greater community of the Laguna Madre came together and learned to be even more appreciative of one another. “We learned that our cities, South Padre Island and Port Isabel, are together, and we are never going to be apart because that bridge is our umbilical cord. So when that happened, we all came together to help each other get through the hard times,” Meza said after the ceremony in reference to Port Isabel’s relationship with South Padre Island.
Those who lost their lives that day were: Robert “Bob” Harris, Hector Martinez Jr., “Harpoon” Barry Welch and Chelsea Welch, all of Port Isabel: Julio Mireles of Mercedes, Stvan Francisco Rivas of Humble, Texas; and Gaspar S. Hinojosa of Kingsville. The survivors were Rene Mata, Gustavo Morales, and Bridgette Goza.