Tragedy can strike anywhere, at any time. That point is never so clear as weeks such as this, when we remember the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, followed just days later by the local shock of the partial collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway that claimed eight of our Rio Grande Valley neighbors.
Most of those events are isolated to specific cities or regions, although every century or so a major catastrophe such as the current COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the entire globe.
The suddenness of such tragedies and varied nature — hurricanes, earthquakes and other weather-related events; factory explosions, cave collapses and other industrial mishaps; mass shootings, serial killings and other violence — make it clear that we all bear a certain amount of risk every day.
But amid the tragedy, those who believe that benevolence is an innate human trait see justification in the outpouring of prayers and support from places far and wide. Total strangers, who are far from the tragedy, feel compelled to do something. We see it whenever Valley residents organize donation drives to collect money and supplies for storm victims or needy migrants. Local volunteers have joined groups assembled by the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations to provide direct help at the site of the catastrophe.
All that came into play after the causeway breach on Sept. 15, 2001. With the scope of the damage, and the number of casualties still unknown, officials from across the Valley mobilized and dispatched emergency crews to the scene. Dozens of ambulances responded to the call. Firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement and rescue divers from several jurisdictions worked together to find and tend to victims, deal with witnesses and family members. Fishing boat captains offered their vessels to help in the operation and residents came to offer help if needed.
Of course, the emergency doesn’t end immediately; recovery can be a slow and lengthy process, and the benevolence didn’t end when the last body was recovered. With access to South Padre Island cut off, businesses and individuals switched gears in maintaining support. For the next two months while the bridge was being repaired, people used personal boats to shuttle students and workers on and off the island every day; a party barge from Corpus Christi came to assist in the effort.
Even music superstar Garth Brooks helped, organizing a free Thanksgiving concert on the island, broadcast on network television, just days after the rebuilt causeway reopened.
This isn’t the first major tragedy to strike the Valley. We’ve had our share of major storms, as well as the collapses of Brownsville’s crowded Tienda Amigo in 1988 and the Mark Kilroy kidnapping and murder and Alton school bus crash in 1989. Each time good wishes and support have come from places unknown.
The calamity of such events marks the point on a region’s timeline, but its history is also defined by the events that follow. On every anniversary of these tragedies we stop to remember those affected and their families, but we also remember the kindness of strangers that helped ease the pain and support the recovery. We will never forget those we’ve lost, but we’ll also remember the benevolence that followed, and we will always be grateful.