Ceremony scheduled to remember victims in Sept. 15, 2001 causeway collapse

In Remembrance

It will be 20 years on Wednesday that a tragedy struck the Rio Grande Valley.

On Sept. 15, 2001, the lives of eight Valley residents were lost after the vehicles they were riding in plunged through a gap on the Queen Isabella Causeway, ending up in the waters of the Laguna Madre.

A memorial ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday to remember the victims and the survivors. It will be held at Memorial Park, located at the median between the eastbound and westbound lanes on the South Padre Island end of the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge.

In the early-morning hours of that day 20 years ago, 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. Eight died.

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

Gustavo Morales and Bridgett Goza, both of Brownsville, and Rene Mata of Port Isabel survived.

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, 2001.

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.

In May 2005, a U.S. Coast Guard report into the collapse found that the tugboat’s 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.

A $9 million settlement was reached in June 2005 in a civil lawsuit in federal court claiming negligence by the tugboat company caused the collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway.

The causeway has been renamed the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge.

[email protected]