Early on the morning of September 15, 2001, a barge hit the Queen Isabella Causeway causing a 160-foot section of the only bridge connecting South Padre Island to the mainland to collapse. Another section fell into the Laguna Madre some twelve hours later. Eight people died. Since September 15, island residents and visitors have been dealing with tragedy, commuting, and a sense of isolation. One hotel is still temporarily closed, fast-food chains like KFC and McDonald’s have shut their doors, and the retail shops that are open are having big sales. The beaches are deserted. LaVina Tyrrell has been living in South Padre Island since 1992. She has been employed as a school librarian at the Los Fresnos Consolidated School District for ten years, and she owns her own beauty salon on the island. The following is her own account of life in South Padre since the causeway collapsed.
September 15, 2001
I wake up at five in the morning and learn from my boyfriend, Alex, that part of the bridge has collapsed and cars have driven off the bridge and are in the Laguna Madre. I cannot imagine it being very bad. In my semi-wakeful state I think, “I guess my first two clients this morning won’t be coming until this afternoon when they fix whatever little thing is wrong and re-open the bridge.”
Then I see the TV coverage and am totally shocked. A huge section of the bridge had disappeared, vanished. I thought I would see a live TV shot that showed jagged edges or pieces of concrete dangling from the bridge, but it was as if part of it had simply dissolved.
September 16, 2001
Alex and I attend a citizens’ meeting at ten in the morning. The mayor, Ed Cyganiewicz, and other officials give information about services. The mayor assures us that our water supply is fine, electricity is fine, and the phone service should be restored within hours. He says that a car ferry has already arrived and that work will begin on building a dock so that cars can be transported off the island. He is able to speak for only about five minutes before angry tourists begin questioning him about when they can get their cars off the island. The meeting goes downhill from there. I whisper to the friend sitting next to me, “This is definitely not our finest hour.”
My school district announces that it will send a bus to transport the teachers and the students who live on South Padre Island to Los Fresnos. This is welcome news because I was scrambling to think of whom I might ask to give me a ride. I call my Monday afternoon clients to tell them that I will let them know when I get back to the island and will be ready to do their nails. Everyone seems understanding, which I appreciate.
My mother calls to see how I’m doing. I tell her that I’m okay, but I already feel nervous about tomorrow.
September 17, 2001
I wake up at two in the morning and cannot get back to sleep. I usually wake up at two and then go right back to sleep, but not this time. I am nervous about the boat ride and about where to go after the ferry docks at Southpoint Marina to catch my ride to Los Fresnos.
Alex takes me to the Sea Ranch Marina at six o’clock. I board the ferry, and we leave at 6:20 a.m. for the watery commute across the bay. Everyone else on the boat looks like they have been awake since two also. The only exception is the captain and crew of our boat; they are joking, saying good morning, and generally doing all they can to make us feel better about our situation. As we head out, I think about the last time I boarded a boat at Sea Ranch at 6:15 a.m. I was going fishing in the Ladies Kingfishing Tournament in August. That day I was full of excitement, anticipating a day of catching big fish, spending time with friends, and enjoying the sun and the water. Now I am embarking on a boat because I have no other choice.
The ferry ride is comfortable and quick. We arrive at Southpoint at 6:45. I get off the boat, look up toward the parking lot, and see my superintendent there to meet me. I am touched that he would get up so early to meet us there. We cannot leave for school immediately because some of the other teachers rode a later ferry. After swatting mosquitoes for about thirty minutes, the rest of the Los Fresnos crew arrives and we leave for school. I can’t remember the last time I rode a school bus. It is not luxurious, but I am happy to have a way to and from school.
Once at school, my colleagues and friends all come by the library and check on me, offer their concern about my well-being, and give me hugs. I cannot seem to control the number of times I cry. I remind myself of the Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone. I go off about once an hour. I cry for the victims who lost their lives because of the bridge collapse, for the loss of my freedom to jump in my car and whiz away whenever I want, for the loss of knowing exactly when I’ll be back on the island to start taking care of my nail clients.
The ferry trip home in the afternoon is much more relaxed than this morning. I meet a woman named Denise. She and I laugh and look for dolphins. The Murphy boys, who are our captains, are cracking jokes. After the thirty-minute ride, we arrive at Sea Ranch at 5:15 p.m. I call my client to meet me at the salon in fifteen minutes. Alex is waiting for me at the dock with a bouquet of flowers. What a nice guy! Thank goodness he is calm during all this and even makes jokes about being the newest taxi driver on the island.
September 19, 2001
The ferries leave at a slightly different time each morning. Monday one left at 6:20, Tuesday at 6:10, and today one is pulling out as Alex drops me at the dock at six. I panic for a moment and then see that people are boarding another boat at the end of the marina. Alex helps me with my bags. I have noticed that almost all the women on the ferries now carry big purses or several bags. In addition to my appointment book, lunch, and school books, I now keep paper towels to dry the benches that are often wet, an umbrella, a hooded jacket, a rain pancho, a sun visor, mosquito repellent, and deck sandals with me at all times.
I board the boat and wait for it to fill with more people and take off. Someone has hung his or her business suit up inside the cabin. This morning my boat buddy is Betty, the mayor’s wife. She teaches an early class in Port Isabel. I think she has as many bags as I do. We find a place on the benches outside the boat cabin, dry them off, and sit down. We enjoy each other’s company on our uneventful trip across, comparing notes about what clothes and shoes we no longer wear to work because of our new mode of transportation. Silks are definitely out, as are heels and hose. Any kind of hairdo other than pulled up or back is also out of the question. I ask her to convey my thanks to Mayor Cyganiewicz for all his hard work and efforts to try and make our lives as normal as possible.
I take a ferry home that leaves Southpoint at around seven. The sunset is gorgeous. People visit with each other, or some just watch the water. As we cross the bay, I notice that it seems to get quiet when we get to the collapsed part of the bridge. People stare at the open span of evening sky between the east and west pillars of what was once our easy-access link to the rest of the world. Sometimes, I still cannot believe it. I went to sleep one night and the next morning my whole world had changed.
September 21, 2001
It’s Friday at last! I am excited about not having to ride the ferry for two days. My big plan for Sunday is to go to church and then sleep the rest of the day. A client who is going on a two-week vacation is going to loan me her car. This means I will have wheels of my own once I get to Port Isabel. Los Fresnos CISD is still providing bus service for us but will discontinue it sometime next week. The car ferry is now in operation for vehicles to move off the island, but I do not plan to move my car over to Port Isabel unless necessary.
This afternoon I park my borrowed car among the hundreds parked in Port Isabel. I meet my afternoon nail client Carolyn, who lives in Port Isabel and is taking the ferry trip for the first time. I have had quite a few cancellations from clients who don’t live on the island. We hurry to the shuttle bus for the one-mile ride to Southpoint Marina, where we catch the ferry. On the trip I sit up close to the bow of the ship, put on my sun visor to protect my face and hair, and advise Carolyn to do the same. As we pass another ferryboat going in the opposite direction, Steven Murphy, our captain, whistles a greeting to them and we all wave.
There is a huge crowd waiting to board the ferry back to Port Isabel as we approach the dock at Sea Ranch. They all are huddled under a big tent for shade. I think that it is probably hotter being crammed next to one another under the tent than it would be to stand out in the sun. The folks under the tent all have numbers written on their hands. Someone says that the crowds returning to Port Isabel are now so large in the late afternoons that folks have to write numbers on their hands to prevent people from rushing the boat when it docks. The ferry boats can hold only a certain number of passengers depending on the size of the boat. I silently thank God that I am returning home and don’t have to be a part of the huge crowd I see in front of me.
September 25, 2001
I take a water taxi home from school this afternoon. Yesterday, I was venting my frustration to Jane, a client and friend, because I never know when to tell my afternoon nail clients to arrive at my salon. I get home from the ferry at different times each day. One day I arrive at six, the next at five-thirty, and so on because the parking shuttles are different each day and the ferry boats leave at slightly different times each day. It all seems to depend upon how many people are getting on the boats. My whole schedule is confused, as well as theirs. Jane suggested that I hire a private boat to bring me back and forth some days. Her husband does this. The downside is that it is not free and the ride is a bit rougher than the big boats. I zip across the bay with George, the captain, and find myself at Jim’s Pier ten minutes after our departure from Port Isabel.
September 28, 2001
I must be crazy! After my normal morning and evening commute, Alex and I accompany my client on the ferry back to Port Isabel after her late appointment. She wanted company, and we thought it would be fun to go to the mainland for an evening out although I was already tired. I use that word, “mainland,” so automatically now. It was never part of my vocabulary, but now, as if by magic, I use the word when referring to any place other than South Padre Island.
We leave on the ferry at 7:40 p.m. and arrive at Alma’s car, which was parked at Wal-Mart, at 8:18 p.m.—a distance of not more than five miles. She takes us to our borrowed car and we’re off to dinner. We go to Pirate’s Landing, located at the base of the causeway in Port Isabel. From our table, I peer out the window at what used to be our busy connection to the rest of the world. Now, the causeway is dark, gray, and deserted. A trailer and two port-a-cans are situated at the base of the bridge, where cars and trucks used to speed by on their way to and from the island.
The ride back to the island is beautiful. The moon is out and wisps of clouds float across the bay as we cross.
September 30, 2001
I didn’t have to cross today but spoke to a friend who said that she and a companion were number 125 in line to get on the ferry to return to the island. They had to wait about an hour to get on a boat. She said that she is going to avoid crossing on Saturdays from now on.
October 2, 2001
I wake up at five and hurry, feeling the pressure of having to get to the marina on time for the early ferry. The ferry today leaves right at six, so I am encouraged that the boat scheduling may be getting more organized. Once on board, I find Betty, whom I haven’t seen for more than a week. She looks tired like me and says that she is.
When we dock at Southpoint, there is the normal early morning line of sixty to seventy people waiting to come across. Betty and I hurry to one of the vans waiting to take us to the resident parking to pick up our cars. The van is full, but someone moves over to make room for Betty and me. We feel like sardines in a can. It is still pitch black outside. I am not sure if I am sitting on the seat or on someone’s leg. I say aloud, “Is that your leg? Am I sitting on your leg?” One of the guys in the back cracks, “Well, it’s either his leg or he’s happy to see you!” Everyone laughs, including me. I shift my position slightly and realize that I was not sitting on any part of anyone else. The whole episode was hilarious. I still smile when I remember it.
I take George’s water taxi home in the evening, which saves about an hour of my time. I have clients waiting for me at the salon.
October 4, 2001
I cross this morning with George in his boat. I was able to sleep until six! The bay is beautiful this morning; a flock of pelicans fly over us just as we are taking off. We make it across in less than ten minutes.
October 8, 2001
A boat pulls out this morning just as Alex drops me at the dock at 6:15 a.m. I resign myself to waiting thirty minutes for the next one to take off. I am learning much about patience during this whole experience. Soon, I won’t even remember what it was like when a trip to Port Isabel only took 10 minutes and my daily commute to Los Fresnos only took 35 minutes.
We leave at 6:50 a.m. On the trip across I visit with my friend Debra. One of the nice things about the ferry is that it brings us all closer together. I meet new people all the time and renew friendships with people I haven’t seen in a while. Debra and I become philosophical this morning about our situation. We both conclude that we just have to let go and breathe deeply these days. We realize that there are many things we can’t control now, including how fast we get to the mainland.
Thirty minutes later, we dock at Southpoint. A van whisks us off to resident parking, where I pick up a different borrowed car. This one is a truck that another client has offered to let me use. The truck runs but not very fast. I arrive at school about 25 minutes late—again. My 25-mile commute this morning took close to two hours.
I receive an e-mail today from my girlfriend in Oklahoma City. I had planned a trip up there to visit family and friends for this weekend. She asks what time I am arriving. For me to get to the airport in time for my 6 a.m. flight, I would either have to spend the night in Harlingen, or get up at two-thirty in the morning to allow enough time for the ferry-crossing and then get a taxi or take the Surf Tran to the airport. I e-mail her back saying that I’m not up for the trip. I invite her to come down for the weekend. I tell her about the gorgeous weather, the deserted beaches, the cheap hotel rates, the sales at the stores, and the great service at the restaurants. I explain that the ferry ride across the bay is free and fun if you do not have to do it every day. Maybe she and her husband will come.