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What the Bridge Meant to Baltimore

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What the Bridge Meant to Baltimore

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Blue-collar workers crossed it. Families went crabbing around it. Teenagers celebrated new driver’s licenses by traversing it. And couples were known to get engaged near it.

Completed in 1977, the Francis Scott Key Bridge was a practical, final link to the beltway of roads that circled Baltimore Harbor, a much-needed solution to reduce Harbor Tunnel congestion. But for so many, it was more than that.

For some, it symbolized the working-class communities around it — for others, the city itself. The bridge also served as a reminder of a storied chapter in history: Near Fort McHenry, the bridge is believed by historians to be within 100 yards from where Key was held by the British during the War of 1812, when he witnessed the siege of the fort in September 1814 and wrote the poem that became the national anthem. (A star-spangled buoy commemorates the supposed spot.)

And the Key Bridge was simply a presence in people’s everyday lives. Since the collapse last week, residents have been processing the loss on many levels, from profound grief for the six workers who died, to concern for the immigrant communities affected by the port’s shutdown, to a sense of emptiness that has cast a pall over their memories.

Here are a few reflections from Baltimoreans, condensed and edited for clarity.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, physician who grew up on the east side of Baltimore

“There’s not a lot of things that tend to unite this city, unfortunately, but this is one of them. Every single Baltimorean felt that bridge fall down. That’s our London Bridge. That’s our Golden Gate Bridge. It was like a friend constantly saying hello to me in the morning.

The bridge was one of the first jobs really available to a lot of the immigrant populations in Baltimore city. My dad, who worked as a painter on the bridge, said if you were an able-bodied person that knew how to do any level of construction or painting and you’re an immigrant, chances are you worked on that bridge.

Up until the bridge was built, you hear these stories from the locals, it would take hours sometimes to get to any place that was reasonable to work at, because of the back roads they had to take. The bridge was a lifeline to schools and work. That’s where my heart is at: These everyday people that live out there just lost a lifeline connection to these big resources such as supermarkets, schools, work.

Not to sound cheesy, but it was a bridge to the American dream. And the first and last hands touching that bridge were immigrants that came here to pursue that.”

Terry Turbin, pastor of Sonshine Fellowship Church in Dundalk and a onetime carpenter who worked on the bridge foundation

“I’m proud to be able to say I had a part in building it. When they get ready to rebuild it, I would like to work on it, even just one day. I went out on the barge in February 1975. After I got married, and found the bridge was being constructed, I wanted to get on the job and make better money. The bridgework was $8.10 an hour. My first day out, I actually asked myself, ‘Oh God, what did I get myself into?’ It was dangerous work. We were driving the pilings, and at that time of year, the wind was pretty stiff. You had to be very careful. The other part was always looking up to make sure nothing was falling on you. It was really stressful. When you got on dry land, you said a prayer of thanks. I have driven over the bridge a thousand times or more, and I would always tell my family, ‘This is where I was working, I was right under there.’ It was an emotional connection for me.”

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, a nonprofit that provides services to immigrants in Baltimore

“For me, the Key Bridge was just another crossing. Its magnificence seemed, well, average. In its death, it has become so much more, its secret life revealed as the place where workers came together. Laborers born in places ranging from south Baltimore to central Honduras sharing companionship as they worked long after I had gone to sleep to make sure that my passage was uneventful. A place of heroism where workers toiled in the cold and throughout the pandemic so that my life was easier. Workers who are fathers, brothers, sisters and mothers. Workers who are neighbors, co-workers, friends from church. Workers, who in their commitment to all of us, are the best of America.”

Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who represents Baltimore as part of Maryland’s 7th District

“I was a freshman in college when they started building [the bridge]. I was anxious for the bridge to go up because it was a quicker way to get to the other side of the harbor, but it also ended up being a kind of cathedral of architecture in that community because it was a beautiful bridge. You felt very comfortable seeing it, because its sturdiness suggested all is well elsewhere.

On the economic side, there’s a real sense of urgency because that bridge affects so many supply line issues all over the country. It’s a cascading kind of ripple effect that will add to an economy right now in the wrong way. There are a number of small businesses that are impacted, particularly those who deal in import-export.”

John Olszewski, known as Johnny O, Baltimore County executive

“I feel it in the very personal way, and in the very painful way, that the people who live here do. We’re still very much in shock and reeling from the loss, not just from our neighbors, people who are experiencing unspeakable tragedy right now, who were working on the bridge, but also our neighbors who have this incredible uncertainty about what their future means, who are port workers.

It’s the little memories: as a high schooler, driving around the beltway and crossing the bridge because it was the thing to do when you got your license, to spending evenings fishing in the channel. I’d do a little crabbing, recreationally, on the side of the bridge there. I have all these incredible memories, and then to have everything you’ve ever known come to a screeching halt … ” [His voice trailed off and he shook his head.]

Michelle Dobbs, veterinary pharmaceutical sales representative, resident of the Sparrows Point neighborhood who crossed the bridge twice a day

“Coming over the Key Bridge, I’d feel an instant lowering of blood pressure, a feeling that my day is done. It was a symbol of coming home. You’d have a beautiful view of the Baltimore skyline from the top of the bridge. I’d see the sailboats and cruise ships coming in and out; one time, I was lucky enough to see the Pride of Baltimore [a tall ship] come through. It never got old. It was just a part of my daily life. I don’t know when it’s not going to be so jarring. It’s unbelievable to have such an emotional attachment to a bridge.”

Joey Harkum, musician from Pasadena, a suburban area south of the bridge on the Patapsco River

“It’s absolutely important to northern Anne Arundel County — that’s how we get to Dundalk, that’s how we get to Fells Point. It’s so close to our house, there’s debris washing up on our beach now. We grew up right there on the river. We would take out a little boat and sneak out to Fort Carroll and just explore. Whenever people from out of town came, I’d drive them to the bridge and show them all the forts. I named my first band Pasadena. Our first album had a drawing of the Key Bridge, the smokestacks and the bridge, showing that’s where we were from. It was just part of our identity for people who lived south of the city.”

Shannon McLucas, ranger at Fort McHenry, a national monument about four miles across from the bridge

“Throughout the morning, we had a lot of regulars, locals walking along the seawall. Joggers, dog walkers, parents with babies, some come every morning to walk. They had the same emotional reaction I did at seeing this dramatically changed landscape. It was very busy but very eerily quiet. To me, that’s remarkable. There are moments when we have this shared humanity — from the park, you see the wreckage, but you also see the Coast Guard at work. We talk about the Battle of Baltimore, in 1814. People came from all over, from different walks of life, to defend the city, they came together. Now, 210 years later, this was an accident, but it’s one of those moments where you realize we do have a shared community.”

Laura Lippman, author

“All I can tell you is that I’m sad and I know others are sad, too. I love my hometown so much. My family moved here in ’65. I remember the riots after the assassination of M.L.K., I remember when homicides spiked in the ’80s, I remember Freddie Gray. It’s a city that’s forever getting knocked down — and getting back up again.

I went to Opening Day of the Orioles, arriving in time for the acknowledgment of those who died on the bridge. It was sincerely moving. As you may know, Baltimoreans shout the ‘O!’ at the end the national anthem — for the Orioles, but also, I think, for the city. I have never shouted ‘O!’ as loudly as I did on Thursday.”

Miriam Jordan contributed reporting.

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