SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Stephen Murphy was home asleep when his friends came pounding on his door.
It was a little after 2 a.m., and when they told him part of the Queen Isabella Causeway had collapsed, he thought it was a joke.
“They said, ‘The bridge has been struck, we need help with the boats’, and I thought they were joking, because we joke around a lot,” said Murphy, captain of Murphy’s Law, a charter fishing boat which was instrumental in the initial search and rescue of the victims.
“They put me in the car,” said Murphy, now 54. “We get halfway down the Island, and I start looking out over the water and I see all the red and blue lights, so then it dawned on me that something really did happen.”
Hundreds gathered Wednesday morning at the “Queen Isabella Causeway Sept. 15, 2001, In Remembrance” event to recall that day when a barge struck the causeway. The accident was so intense part of the bridge collapsed and cars in transit went over the edge, killing eight people.
The event at the Queen Isabella Memorial Park under sunny blue skies began with the presenting of colors by the 1st Cavalry Horse Detachment from Ft. Hood, Texas.
“We are a mounted color guard,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Joe McClendon, whose sister Chelsea Welch died in the accident along with her husband Harpoon Barry Welch.
He and the three other horsemen were dressed in Army uniforms of the late 1800s, complete with riding boots and blue jacket.
McClendon was instrumental in bringing the mounted color guard to the ceremony to honor his sister and brother-in-law, as well as the other victims and their families.
“I hope she’s proud of what I have become in the Army,” said McClendon. “I was 17 when it happened.”
As the ceremony began, he and the other mounted riders made a broad sweep around the park carrying the U.S. and Texas flags, swords high in solemn procession.
Then the playing of bagpipes from the Brownsville Fire Pipes and Drums cut the air with a poignant musical memory of the loss so long ago.
Finally, both groups entered the park, faced each other and stopped.
“Present arms!” McClendon commanded as Leslie Blasing sang the National Anthem.
Pastor David Boughter gave the invocation, and several local dignitaries spoke to the assembly, including South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty, former SPI Mayor Ed Cyganiewicz and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.
“Driving here brought back memories of that day, that day I was called right after 5 o’clock in the morning that the bridge had collapsed,” he said. “I just could not imagine that. I was brought up to the middle of the bridge to be able to look into the water and see the submerged cars and being informed of those that had been killed.”
One of those who woke Murphy that morning to get his boat was Joe Ricco, manager at Louie’s Backyard. He had just been hanging with the Welches as well as Bob Harris and Hector Martinez Jr., all of whom had just gone into the water and perished.
Ricco remembered with heavy emotion the friends he lost that night and whom he sought to honor Wednesday morning. Murphy explained in more detail what happened after Ricco picked him up.
They took his charter boat “Murphy’s Law” to the scene of the accident. The causeway lights were out — everything was completely dark. Murphy opened up with his 500-watt boat light and suddenly people could see submerged vehicles and one stuck on a piling.
“We were like right on the bull’s eye, we were lighting up the area looking for survivors,” he said. “So we got under the bridge. One of the sheriffs, he was a good guy, he told us to leave the area, we can’t be there, it was just chaotic. So we backed off and started leaving and then they called us back on the radio and said, ‘Mr. Stephen Murphy, get back over here,’ because when we left it was black. You couldn’t see anything. I was glad I could help out.”
And it didn’t stop there.
With the bridge gone, people were stranded on the island. Murphy and his family used their boats for over a month to ferry people back and forth at no charge. Soon, others joined the effort, making sure communities, families and friends kept their ties strong.
View Brownsville Herald photojournalist Miguel Roberts’s full photo gallery of the “Queen Isabella Causeway Sept. 15, 2001, In Remembrance” event here: