The Night The Francis Scott Key Bridge Came Down

The Night The Francis Scott Key Bridge Came Down

In the end, the collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge may require more than financial surgery to repair.

It was the type of tragedy that rippled across the pond of humanity and contaminated every corner of its basin. Its surreal presence yielded chaos, crisis, and panic in the early hours of Tuesday morning. No one expected an errant container ship to destroy a 1.6-mile bridge built half a century ago in the mouth of the Patapsco River. For decades, the Francis Scott Key Bridge brought economic prosperity into Baltimore. Then, on a cold night in Maryland’s largest port city, it crumbled and created a vacuum of uncertainty for thousands of port workers.

The bridge bore the name of the man who wrote about the thrill of seeing the American flag whipping in the wind as the sun arose on September 14, 1814, following a battle between British forces and the United States. On March 26, 2024, another nighttime struggle took place. First responders raced out into the night to participate in a harbor rescue. Communication snafus led Baltimore’s firefighters to believe that a vehicle had possibly plunged into the water. A few minutes later, they were informed that a thirteen-person construction crew might need to be rescued from the river. They didn’t fully understand the scope of the tragedy until they put their eyes on it.

That night, I’d nodded off while watching Stranger Things on the couch and woke up right before my phone began to buzz incessantly. I didn’t even bother to look at it. That type of activity is typically associated with a fire, and I was too tired to drive anywhere. Then the phone rang, and I knew the world had shifted to some degree. No one calls me in the middle of the night unless there’s a tragedy.

I immediately did the same thing I did the night there was a mass shooting at Brooklyn Homes, killing two people and injuring twenty-eight others. I ran out of the house without much of a plan. On the night of the shooting, not only was I without a plan, but I didn’t have a car. My Hyundai had died a horrible, mechanical death. So, I got on a bus. It took me three buses to get to the crime scene. By the time I arrived, authorities had expanded the search area. On the sidelines, I ran into an intelligence officer, a staff member from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and a detective, all of whom I knew. I thought about them on the way to the collapse zone as I drove my used and newly purchased truck past the street that would have taken me into that neighborhood.

The ghosts of Damage Past slipped out from the shadows as I drove toward the bridge. I’d decided to take the long way to Fort Armistead Park, which is where first responders had set up a staging area for what they described as a “mass casualty event.” I wanted to avoid the possibility of getting stuck in the tunnel or in traffic that was building up along the highway. It was an uncomfortable experience. I’d been to the South Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay by bus a few times. I’d never driven through the area, though. That night, I learned the location of every pothole in a trial-by-error scenario. My eyes kept darting away to familiar landmarks. I passed the bar that had stayed open when the entire block was on fire in 2016. It had been part of many crime scenes. I drove past the spot where Officer Keona Holley had been shot in 2021. I drove past the nightclub where Stormy Daniels danced in 2018. Then, the area looked familiar in a way that made me feel sick.

I suddenly realized that I was familiar with my surroundings because I’d had to cheat my way into them in 2022. Police had shut down the area to investigate a shooting. I cut through a field, walked across Aspen Street, cut through another field, and then found myself in a fenced-in work area with disabled cars. Being petite doesn’t often work in my favor unless I need to trespass, and in that case, I needed to exit the area I’d trespassed into through a locked gate. I slid under it and out of the other side, which put me on Pennington Avenue—far past the officer who was redirecting traffic. 

I kept walking. I planned to walk until I could see a sliver of crime scene tape. I made it to the bridge without finding any tape. Suddenly, a female officer shouted directions at me. She wasn’t terse, and our interaction wasn’t negative. I took a few pictures of crime lab technicians examining a van, got some video footage, and turned around. I knew there had been a shooting. I hadn’t realized the gunshot victim never made it out of the driver’s seat. The bullet that killed him was a byproduct of road rage. That’s how he died: at the end of someone else’s rope.

I drove past the spot where he took his last breath and felt ill over knowing that intimate detail. The average person doesn’t navigate landmarks that way—through traumatic events—yet that was how I’d been navigating the area, by using its dark history to define its parameters. The ghosts of yesteryear disappeared as I pulled up to the blockade at Fort Armistead Road. Authorities were steering drivers away from the collapsed bridge, but the lessons the ghosts had taught me stayed in my mind. I did exactly what I’d done the day of the road rage shooting. I parked my truck off to the side and quietly walked up the street, counting on the Maryland Transportation Authority employees to be occupied with frustrated drivers.

There was a second blockade up the street, and that is where I made my mistake. I stopped and stood there like a stump because I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew that first responders were congregating at Fort Armistead Park. I’d never been there before, though. I thought perhaps the blockade was the entryway to the park. By the time I realized that it wasn’t, it was too late. One of the Maryland Transportation Authority employees had set his eyes on me and determined I was a problem. 

Worse, a very nice officer tried to steer me toward a staging area that was literally on the other side of the city. I understood that he was only following protocol, but I always feel like a cow being corralled when someone tells me to go to X and wait for Y to talk to me. I have no interest in Y. Someone else would be assigned to Y. I was there for pictures and videos of the first responders, but with limited access to the area, that was looking less and less likely by the minute.

My error eventually led me to what I was looking for. I retreated from the second blockade designed to keep people from driving onto I-695. I returned to the first one, where I started gathering pictures and videos of emergency response vehicles entering the blocked-off area. Since I didn’t get an adverse reaction from the authorities, I stayed behind them and planned to do so until they soured on me. Luckily, the drivers who were agitated by the sight of an unexpected blockade kept them occupied. That’s when the tension increased.

I’d been fudging around with my camera when the sound of shouting was muted by the revving of an engine. I looked up and saw a truck force its way through the blockade. I quickly pulled out my phone and fought with its settings as it whizzed past me. Another vehicle sped by me. Then, one of the Maryland Transportation Authority guys sped past me to cut some other person off. Suddenly, a man began trucking it past the authorities and up the street wearing a T-shirt and no coat on a frigid night.

Where were they going with all their frustration and anger? There was literally nowhere to go. The bridge was demolished, the victim of a Godzilla-like attack accidentally launched by the container ship Dali. All these people were angrily speeding off toward the abyss without knowing that their actions might lead to their deaths. After I stood there looking at the melee for some time, I realized that a great many individuals operate in that manner. They drive themselves toward goal markers, chasing after small successes as they move toward a destination that may not even be able to accommodate them once they arrive. One day, the bridge they’re building toward the future stretches out into the distance, daunting but promising; the next day, it collapses, and there’s nowhere left to go.