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Safeguarding a TX Causeway

Tue September 23, 2003 - West Edition

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) Almost two years after barges knocked a 240-ft. gap in the Queen Isabella Causeway and vehicles plunged off the broken span, highway engineers are working to ensure that motorists crossing Texas’ longest bridge are better protected.

Work on the $12-million project continues as survivors continue to rebuild their lives following the Sept. 15, 2001 collapse that killed eight people.

Gustavo Morales, former manager of Bigo’s Mexican Restaurant on South Padre Island, was one of 11 people who fell into the Laguna Madre when the barges struck.

Morales, sitting in the kitchen of his apartment on Brownsville’s west side, held 1-year-old son Gustavito in his arms and recalled how his life has changed since the collapse.

“(My son) is the best thing that has happened to me in a long time,’ Morales, one of three survivors to make it out of the Laguna Madre, told The Brownsville Herald in Sept. 13 editions.

“I am doing very well. I have come to terms with the accident and my life is great.”

The collapse temporarily severed the only vehicular link to the island, throwing the tourism economy into a tailspin. Residents in the close-knit community of Port Isabel have mourned victims that included the chief of its volunteer fire department.

Morales said his son was born in December 2001, about three months after the 30-year-old span collapsed, “so it helped a lot.”

After four months of physical therapy, Morales said he can make full use of his right ankle, which had been injured during the collapse.

“The therapy was bothersome. The tendons and ligaments in my right ankle had been torn,” he said.

Morales credited his family for helping make both a physical and emotional recovery.

“My wife Idalia and my family have been a great support,” he said. “There were times when I would feel down or start to remember it (the accident), but they were like mental therapy for me.”

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C., resulted in a three-phase project to ensure causeway safety, said Mario Jorge, Texas Department of Transportation district engineer for the Rio Grande Valley region.

In the first phase, a system of lights located at 400 ft. on both sides of the bridge and would immediately warn motorists of danger ahead.

“If there is a collapse on the highway, the system will activate and (red) flashing lights will go off in order to stop traffic,” said Jorge.

Also, crossing guards on both ends of the causeway will cut off bridge access once danger is detected and the lights come on. The $800,000 phase, which began in June, will likely be completed by the end of this month.

A second phase will include pier protection devices to be placed on each corner of the causeway to keep barges from hitting the columns.

“They will act like a bumper,” said Jorge.

The cost for each bumper, also called a “dolphin,” will be $5.8 million, officials said. A third construction phase will include spraying an anti-erosion chemical for preserving the causeway.

“I think the new safety system is great. It’s good to see it in place,” said U.S. Coast Guard petty officer Tom Humphrey, stationed at South Padre Island.