A Light Found in Darkness
For three years of my Coast Guard career, I was stationed as a cook on one of the services most untypical cutters, a construction tender. This was no technologically advanced, drug interdicting, life-saving, high seas ship. She was over thirty years old, dented, and black with rust protruding from her crevices. A seventy-five-foot tugboat with an eighty-four-foot crane barge strung to the front with two-inch steel cables. It was slow; only capable of moving ten nautical miles an hour. She was a work boat but reliable and steadfast. Her crew was small for a Coast Guard ship; fourteen men including our Captain. We were as close to brothers as shipmates could be.
Our Captain was a twenty-eight-year veteran ship operator. He was a thin, old, and weathered Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate who seemed more like a crewmember than our leader, but knew when to draw the line. Our normal mission was to maintain and construct aids to navigation pylon markers and buoys along the inter-coastal shipping channels between Port O’Connor and South Padre Island, Texas. For three years, things were as normal and mundane as could be until my last patrol where things got a little more interesting – even a little extraordinary.
Moored for the evening at the Coast Guard station in South Padre Island, our intentions were to rest and head back to our homeport in Corpus Christi the following morning. We had spent two weeks reconstructing the channel markers along the narrow Laguna Madre channel. We were exhausted and ready to reunite with our families. It was 3 O’clock in the morning when we got the call. The midnight watch stander broke into the berthing area, out of breath and with a trembling southern draw yells “Get your coveralls on! The bridge fell down and there are cars and people in the water!” I awoke suddenly in disbelief, thinking this was some sort of joke. I saw the watch stander’s face and immediately knew this would be no ordinary day.
The date was September 15th, 2001, four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. On a ship where the days are redundantly routine, structured, and slow paced, I had never seen movement with such urgency. There were coffin racks being thrown open and the sound of 13 men frantically trying to dress and get their boots on without beating each other senseless with their arms outstretching through their uniform sleeves. Our Captain had us muster up on the bow of the tug but didn’t have a lot of information. All we could do is speculate that this was another terrorist attack. Surely our Captain would have more information as the situation continued to unfold.
The Captain was bewildered and nervous as this was probably one of the most intense things he had experienced within the last two decades of his career. He had no real answers for the crew, only advice, and he said “Prepare for the worst, work together, and safety is everyone’s responsibility so keep an eye out for each other; let’s go see what we can do.” We made quick work of clearing the barge deck by shifting the 60-foot pylons to one side and bringing the smaller construction supplies below decks, anticipating that we would need a place for bodies or wreckage.
It seemed like forever between the time we unmoored and made it through the winding inlet between South Padre Island and the Queen Isabella Causeway but it was only about fifteen minutes and still very dark. As we made our approach, there were already three small Coast Guard boats on scene taking turns shining their high-powered spotlights through what used to be a 500-foot span of the causeway into the dark sky and then alternating toward the churning, murky brown water below in search of survivors. The small boats were shining lights through the opening to warn drivers of the perils that lay ahead. We could clearly see the streams of light as it reflected off of the dense humidity in the air, but to the unsuspecting drivers, it was not so obvious.
Through the distance, you could hear the sound of screeching tires, but only for a brief second. The drivers only had a second to react but it wasn’t enough time. Next we heard the twisting metal and splashing as each car made impact with the exposed support pillar and then the water. I had never felt so helpless in all my life. It was like a dream where you’re running but not going anywhere, your muscles unable to work and unable to even belt out a scream. Seconds felt like hours as we just stood there, not knowing how many more cars would come before the police could block the causeway from both directions.
An hour later, the sky grew lighter and revealed an eerie scene of two dozen rescue boats, helicopters, and the wreckage of one vehicle crushed like a tin can against a support beam just above the water line. Department of Transportation workers were surveying the damage, standing at the edge of the 85-foot drop. A water pipe that traveled under the causeway continued to flow. The water cascaded down and became more of a spray as it got further away and contended with the whipping gulf wind. About 500 yards away was a tugboat with a long string of barges attached to it. It seemed like an odd place for a barge to be hanging out, but we thought it might be waiting to pass under the bridge so we paid it no mind. South Padre Island had no other bridge and also no ferry service. Electricity and fresh water were now cut off and no one could get on or off the island. The small city was isolated from the mainland. The warm sun began to shine and it was reported that no one survived. A feeling of hopelessness filled the air and silently we all stared at each other knowing this rescue effort had turned into a recovery effort.
I made my way to the galley to make breakfast for the crew. I was the only cook on board and I instinctively knew that keeping morale high and providing some normalcy was extremely important in a situation like this. The Captain informed me that our ship was going to become a command and control platform used to carry out the recovery mission. He asked if I could keep everyone fed until the Red Cross could establish a way to send meals out. I knew my food inventory was limited since we were supposed to be heading back to homeport that very same day. I told him that I would feed as many people for as long as I could, given what supplies I had.
Before I knew it, we had over 80 people onboard. State and Federal agency small boats tied off to the side of our ship. We had Sherriff’s Officers, Fire and Rescue personnel, and even Texas Rangers. I only had enough food for our crew to last two or three days. For the next six hours, I cooked everything I had in my pantry. I prepared and served an odd assortment of food and I did my best to carefully match the items so they weren’t too outrageously paired. It was quite the smorgasbord. Looking back, it was nice to be away from the scene for a little while, tucked away in my tiny sanctuary toward the stern doing what I loved to do but soon that would change.
Later that day, law enforcement officials informed us that a tugboat pushing a long string of barges had struck one of the center bridge support pillars causing the collapse. I thought back to the tugboat we saw on the side of the channel, and it immediately became clear that it was responsible for the horrific accident. An important part of this recovery effort and the investigation process was documenting the operation on film. The footage would be reviewed later by law enforcement agencies during the investigation process, for training, and for Coast Guard ‘lessons learned’ purposes.
Although our ship seemed to be well-suited and well-equipped for this type of operation, the Coast Guard has never been a part of anything similar to this in the past. Normally, salvaging cars and bodies from the water would be left to some type of salvage barge but we were already on scene and capable of performing the task. While awaiting the arrival of the U.S. Navy Divers, I continued to provide meals until I had barely a crumb left. The Red Cross responded just in time and began sending meals out to the ship; I no longer needed to cook. With no real purpose after my food was expended, I was asked to film the recovery operation once it began, so I hung up my apron and took to the camera. The divers were ready to go and the camera was rolling.
One by one, we plucked three cars from the bottom with ease. Each car was placed and held vertically on the bow and transported to another nearby barge so the bodies could be extracted, identified, and transported to shore. It was a gruesome scene with the cars and bodies badly mangled. As the vehicles were pulled up vertically by their chassis, water gushed out from their torn open windshields, carrying miscellaneous debris and a heavy smell of gasoline and rotting flesh. Airbags were hanging from the front of each car like collapsed grocery bags half-filled with water; the people inside looked translucent and waterlogged as if they were not even real. The warm water of the Gulf and the blue crabs had viciously taken their toll on the victims in just a short time. Their faces and arms were chewed up and gouged; their skin was loose and pruned with pieces dangling as they were suspended in their seats. The smell of decomposition was inconceivable, like the smell of a million dead and rotting barnacles at low tide times ten. Most of the crew had never seen a dead body before, let alone anything gruesome like this.
The bodies were laid out and their pockets were cut open to retrieve any form of identification. I will never forget one man that we pulled from a car. His arms and wrists were locked in front of him; elbows bent the opposite way as if tried to brace for impact and they buckled backwards. His eyes were wide open and a translucent blue. The look of complete terror on his face will haunt me forever. I remember wondering what it must have been like for them in their last moments. One female was pulled from the backseat of her blue Ford Mustang. A rescue worker explained that she probably crawled to the back to get air when she couldn’t escape. Her hands were badly bruised and a greasy vomit film covered the inside back windshield. He said she was probably trying to punch out the window but eventually the car completely filled with water and she ingested and vomited water back and forth until she died.
I remember feeling a tremendous amount of angst and sadness and a fear of death that I had never felt before. It must have been a terrifying way to die; to be driving along one minute listening to your favorite tunes and the next minute fighting for your life while you sink into darkness. Just as the fourth car was about to be rigged up, the divers described the scene underwater as they examined the best way to attach the crane cable. My heart sank when they reported a male and female couple and a child seat in the car. My son was only a year old at the time and I couldn’t help but personalize the situation. I was not prepared to see a child in the same condition as the rest of the people we had retrieved. I’m not normally a religious person, but I prayed with all my conviction for a miracle.
As we anxiously waited for the divers to prepare the fourth car for retrieval, I noticed a second section of the bridge inching its way off its support pillars. Earlier in the day, there seemed to be about eight inches of overlap atop of the pillars. It must have been the heat of the hot summer day that was causing the bridge to expand, and several hours later there only seemed to be about two inches overlapping. This was not a good sign, since our ship and the divers were right under the bridge performing the recovery and transportation officials were standing directly on top of the unstable structure.
I immediately ran to the bridge to alert the Captain and frantically exclaimed, “Senior Chief, we need to get the divers out of the water and back up, that bridge is coming down!” With no hesitation, he ordered the divers out of the water using the loud speaker. He was also yelling to alert the transportation workers on top of the bridge to get off. We were waving our hands and screaming for them to run. As soon as the last diver was aboard, the Captain started backing down with all the ships might. The transportation workers were running for their lives.
We couldn’t have been more than twenty-five feet away when a second 500,000-pound section of the bridge came crashing down with a deep thunderous crack and then a brief silence just before it made impact with the water. Everyone just froze with fear and astonishment. The fallen section generated a massive splash and a wave that rocked the ship to the likes she had never seen before because she was an inland cutter. When the sea settled down, I could see the unmistakable look of relief on everyone’s faces. We all knew just how close we were to death and further tragedy.
From that point forward, we proceeded more cautiously. We headed for shore and waited two days for the remaining support pillars to be reinforced with cables. The last few days had taken their toll on us emotionally, and seeing the family members eager for closure was making the situation even tougher to cope with. I remember feeling relieved that we avoided a second tragedy, but the scene on shore overshadowed that. The police lights that were barely visible an hour earlier were now much brighter against the evening sky. Family members of the victims were standing at the edge of the water waiting for answers and for closure. I could tell how dispirited they were to see us coming in and their loved ones were still not found. I wanted so badly to help them, but there was obviously nothing I could do to erase their grief and torment.
As I made my way off the ship to head into town for food supplies, an older woman was standing near the pier holding a baby boy, maybe only a year old, and wearing only a diaper. The woman looked as though she had not slept for days and the cheeks below her eyes were swollen and red, revealing her distress as if she had been weeping for equally as long. The baby was crying hysterically as if he was somehow able to know that something was very wrong. The reflections of red and blue strobe lights were glistening off the tears running down his face. With a motherly instinct, she was trying to be strong and comfort the child, as any nurturing caregiver would do but it was evident that she needed comfort herself. As we disembarked the cutter, she somberly approached us and asked if we had found her daughter or son in-law. She said the two of them had been out celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary and never came home.
I froze—crippled with anguish and unable to fathom her loss. I didn’t quite know how to react or what to say. The only words I could muster up were that I didn’t know anything. My conscience felt heavy and I wanted nothing more than to tell her what she needed to hear but I could not. I directed her to seek answers from the other law enforcement officials standing nearby. My heart wrenched and my stomach nauseatingly turned because I knew exactly where her loved ones were but I was in no official position to inform her of what we discovered that day. Suddenly, it occurred to me that she was holding the baby and we would not find the body of a child in the fourth car. I was emotionally overwhelmed with sadness but relieved at the same time. The baby was safe, but his parents were sitting at the bottom of Laguna Madre with a 250-ton section of bridge crushing them deeper into the muddy bottom and this child would grow up without them.
Two days later, we set out to what remained of the Queen Isabella Causeway and urgently began recovering the remaining vehicles. Throughout that week, we were able to recover all of the cars by dragging them out from under the rubble. The families, although stricken with immense grief, were grateful for our efforts and were at least able to find closure and some peace. I remember getting back home after the mission and hugging my family harder and with more sentiment than ever before. I have never been the same after that week; nor have my shipmates who shared this experience.
I felt like a piece of me was gone but replaced with something more profound; a light that I had never taken the time to see. It was replaced with a greater sense of purpose for my life and a deeper appreciation for the ones I love. The blind piece of indestructibility within me had vanished allowing the light to touch my soul deeply. The incident taught me that life is frail and indefinite and to cherish each day and every moment in it because you never know just how extraordinary the next turn might be.
Jeffrey Lester, 2nd Place in Short Story