Gustavo Morales Jr. was driving home from work on the morning of Sept. 15, 2001 as he had done many nights in the past.
Morales, who at the time was the manager of Bigo’s Mexican Restaurant on South Padre Island, had locked up the business and was heading home to Brownsville via the Queen Isabella Causeway.
“I was doing my normal duties as a manager,” he said.
He had called his wife as he drove toward the causeway. He remembers looking at the clock in his red Chevrolet pickup truck, it was 1:43 a.m. “I can remember that 100%.”
As he started his drive on the causeway he could see flashing lights in the distance. He didn’t know what was going on. He thought the lights were coming from fishermen who normally fish at night.
The drive on the causeway was dark because the lights were not working. They had been out for a couple of months, he said.
Morales, who was 36 at the time, was unaware that just in front of him was a gaping hole in the bridge that he would drive into.
“I continued driving and suddenly five to 10 seconds after, I was flying. Suddenly my pickup was flying and going into the water,” he said.
It took about three seconds for his truck to plunge into the water.
“Those seconds were some of the scariest moments I went through because I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but just feeling that I was in the air and flying,” Morales recalled. “My vehicle was going nose down.”
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 gap with only three people being pulled from the water alive. Eight others had died.
Killed in the Sept. 15, 2001 causeway collapse were Robert “Bob” Harris, Hector Martinez, “Harpoon” Barry Welch and Chelsea Welch — all of Port Isabel. Julio Mireles of Los Fresnos, Robin Leavell of Mercedes, Stvan Francisco Rivas of Humble, Texas, and Gaspar S. Hinojosa of Kingsville were also killed in the collapse.
Morales, Rene Mata, of Port Isabel, and Bridgett Goza, of Brownsville, survived.
As he recalled that fateful morning, Morales said his truck plunging through the gap felt like he was a rollercoaster ride. You are at the top of it before you plunge down.
Morales remembers holding on tight to the steering wheel and trying to pump the truck’s brakes. He said he wasn’t sure what had happened. He thought maybe one of the tires on his truck had blown out or that his vehicle had been hit from the back by another vehicle.
“I was so disoriented,” he said.
His truck started to fill up with water, some of which was coming from the area of the brakes.
“I remember the first thing I wanted to do was as soon as I went into the water, without taking off the seatbelt, instead of opening the door I was trying to break out the window,” Morales said.
As he sat there trapped inside his truck, he thought he was going to die.
“Everything you have done comes to your mind,” he added.
But Morales said he knows God was with him during the entire ordeal. He was able to get out of his truck by taking off his seatbelt and rolling down the windows, which happened to be manual.
“Now that I was on the surface I looked at the causeway and saw the gap,” Morales remembered. “Right away what came to my mind was 9/11 because it was just days after. I didn’t see the tugboat and I didn’t see the barges.”
Morales remained in the water for about another five to 10 minutes before three fishermen rescued him and the two others.
“Everything was dark. I couldn’t see anything. But after I was out I knew that I wasn’t going to die because of a drowning,” Morales said.
He recalls hearing Goza screaming for help but he couldn’t see her. He yelled back to her so she would know he was there. He didn’t hear any calls from Mata and later learned that he had been severely injured.
Morales himself said he felt excruciating pain coming from his right ankle and that he thought it was broken. It turned out to be that he damaged his tendons and ligaments.
“When they pulled me out of the water the first question I remember asking is, ‘Was this another terrorist attack? What happened?’” Morales said.
He was told that a tugboat had hit the pillars.
Morales immediately asked to borrow a phone the men had so he could call his parents. He tried three times and was unsuccessful. He called his wife, told her what happened and asked her to please go to his parents’ house and let them know he was OK. His parents lived about five minutes away.
“I told her I went into the water and she said, ‘What? What do you mean you went into the water?’ I told her I fell from the causeway in my pickup. She started yelling,” he said.
His parents thought kids were fooling around on the phone at 2 a.m. and that is why they didn’t answer the phone. They didn’t recognize the name on the caller ID.
Because Mata was severely injured he was transported by helicopter to the hospital. Mata and Goga were transported to the hospital by ground ambulance a few hours later.
Morales has not had any dreams of the accident, but he always thinks about it.
“Even though it’s been 20 years details always come to my mind. Every single day I remember what I went through,” he added.
Morales believes what has helped him get through the ordeal is by sharing his story, and credits his dad, Gustavo Morales, for persuading him to do so.
“My dad told me, ‘Gustavo, don’t keep it to yourself. Just let it go, talk about it because then you don’t know how you are going to react emotionally.’ It helps me a lot talking about what I went through,” Morales said.
He admits that after the accident he wondered why he survived and the others had to die. He said he thanks God every day that he survived and for blessing him with another day of life.
“Even though it’s been 20 years now, what I went through… I still feel emotional about it,” he said, as his voice cracked up.
Three months after the accident Morales returned to work on the Island and used the ferry to get there since the bridge was still under repair.
Two days after the reopening of the causeway Morales drove over the bridge itself and thought he would have some type of issue driving over it, but he didn’t.
“Of course every time that I cross that causeway it brings me back memories,” Morales said.
He keeps a picture of his barely recognizable crashed truck with him, and said what happened to him should serve as reminder to all not to take life for granted.
“Don’t wait until something bad happens to give thanks to another day of life, because we don’t know what can happen in one day. We have to always be grateful and thankful and just give thanks to every single minute,” he said.