Days after 9/11, another tragedy occurred, this time along the South Texas Coast. A towing barge crashed into the columns supporting the Queen Isabella Causeway – an almost two-and-a-half mile bridge connecting South Padre Island with Port Isabel. Part of the bridge collapsed, leaving a gaping hole awaiting unwitting drivers. Eleven people went down in their vehicles, plummeting into the water. Eight died before the sun rose that day.
“When I talked to my mother about it, she talks about how it seemed like everybody thought that it was another terrorist attack. But throughout the years, it just has kind of been the story that has taken different forms – you know, different people that I’ve talked to have different versions of the story.”
It wasn’t until Lopez heard a podcast about the causeway tragedy that she realized how little of the story was known.
“It started on YouTube, and it was founded by Robert Espericueta who is one of the fishermen who was out on the water that evening of the accident, and who actually was part of a group that saved the three survivors who came out of the accident.”
Lopez wrote in the Observer that Espericueta and his three family members, Roland Moya, Leroy Moya and Tony Salinas, had taken a small boat into the water that morning when the barge hit the bridge.
“They watched as the cars fell through the 160-foot section of the bridge that came down, and from, like, the highest point of the bridge,” she said. “That’s like about 80 feet above the water, and they just watched it happen. And even though they knew that it was really risky, they were like, we have to we have to go save these people or do what we can. So they they steered their boat, their little fishing boat, out toward the bridge and they’re probably about a mile away from it. And they just started to pick up whatever they could.”
Espericueta and his family members were told by their lawyers at the time that they were under a gag order and couldn’t talk about the accident. Twenty years later, Lopez says, they found out that wasn’t true.
“A lot of people sued the towing barge company for what happened and to get their settlement – that’s what the attorneys told them that they had to do. But it’s, they can’t really ask why anymore, because their attorneys are dead,” she said.
In her Observer story, Lopez noted that both the family’s attorneys died from suicide, but it’s still unclear to what extent their deaths were related to personal turmoil after the bridge collapse. She says Espericueta and the other fisherman still have a lot of unanswered questions about that time.
“And it’s kind of just something that they feel like they’re never going to really have an answer to,” she said.