Fishers of Men

0
1539

A dark night, as windy as it gets. A vicious current. An underpowered tugboat struggling to turn its barges. A terrible impact, and a devastating collapse that sent nine vehicles plunging below. Eight people died, and three survived.

If you live in the Rio Grande Valley, the 2001 collapse of the Queen Isabella Causeway is a story you know.

Or at least it’s one you think you know.

“Nobody really knows anything about it,” said Joshua Moroles, podcaster and founder of Alamo Digital Agency. “It’s been swept under the rug for the past 20 years.”

Did you know, for instance, that four fishermen in the right place at the right time plucked the three survivors from the water? Or that it was the first time the owner of the boat had ever taken it out after dark? Or that those same fishermen were detained by a gaggle of law enforcement agencies and grilled for hours on what they were doing since 9/11 up until that night?

Moroles paired up with Robert Espericueta, who was in the captain’s chair of the ski boat during that harrowing experience, to tell The True Story of the Queen Isabella Causeway Collapse on Moroles’ existing podcasting platform.

The podcast stands at 14 episodes — 15 if you count an initial trailer. YouTube hosts a playlist that organizes the episodes in order at https://bit.ly/33Rmc73, though anyone can listen to them via apps like Apple Podcast, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, and more.

“What’s funny about it is I was at a comedy show the other night,” Moroles said. “The comedian knew me and she was like, ‘I’ve been meaning to watch your podcast but I don’t have 17 hours of my life to waste.’ I get it, it’s long, but that’s the only way the story can be told.”

Espericueta’s initial retelling of the accident — which clocks in at just under an hour-and-a-half — garnered such interest that it was like a snowball effect on social media, Moroles said. Listeners started chiming in to connect Moroles and Espericueta with other people who had firsthand experiences of the collapse. Subsequent episodes feature a survivor the fishermen saved, a pastor who prayed over victims and survivors, three captains who were enlisted to assist law enforcement on the water, and much more.

“You’d be surprised how many people say ‘I was on the island’ or ‘I was on my way’ or ‘I just left,’” Espericueta said. “That night is a common denominator amongst several hundred people — maybe in the thousands — from PI, from Brownsville, from South Padre Island.”

Espericueta was fishing the night of the accident with his two cousins, Roland and Leroy Moya, and their brother-in-law, Tony Salinas, in a ski boat he had recently purchased. The outing began almost as a comedy of errors — the wives of the fishermen only barely relenting to let them go in the first place, the group nearly missing out on getting bait because it was past closing time for the shop, the boat ramp that was supposed to be shuttered because of a small craft advisory on the bay somehow being open. The four of them didn’t even catch any fish.

That is, until, as Pastor Steven D. Hyde of Lighthouse Assembly of God in Port Isabel put it, God made them fishers of men.

If you read any news archives about the causeway collapse, the four fishermen might not be mentioned at all. Or you may see a line saying something like “fishers pulled the survivors from the water” — period. It’s a statement that barely scratches the surface of the four men’s contribution.

How they first pulled in Brigette Goza, who screamed in panic every time they approached the causeway again, looking for more survivors. How they tossed a flotation device to Gustavo Morales Jr. before finding Rene Mata floating facedown a distance away. How every time one of the fishermen jumped in the bay to help, they passed through a sheen of gasoline coating the water. The bubbles rising to the surface from the cars below. The bump of a sunken vehicle just below the hull of the ski boat.

“This was my only avenue to sharpen the blurred lines, so to speak — kind of really, really put out there what the primary witnesses viewed and experienced,” Espericueta said of his reasoning for contributing to the podcast. “They minimize our participation a lot, but I think it’s just because they never had a clear picture of that evening. Nobody ever did. It wasn’t information that was being handed out to everybody. It was being protected by a court order.”

That was a 20-year gag order. It accompanied a lawsuit against Brown Water Towing that eventually paid out about $9 million to the families of the victims, the survivors, the fishermen, and two children who lost parents in the accident.

Sept. 15 marks 20 years since the disaster.

Leaders from Port Isabel and South Padre Island mark each anniversary of the collapse with ceremonies, speeches, and appearances by survivors and family members of the victims. Last year, the cities had to deal with a bomb threat the day before the 19th anniversary. No explosives were found, and the causeway reopened after eight hours.

The level of detail that the podcast goes into is gripping. Haunting, even. But neither Moroles nor Espericueta have received much backlash from it.

“‘Why?’ The question I get is ‘why?’ ‘Why share, why reopen those wounds?’ and things of that nature. ‘Why are you doing this now?’” Espericueta said. “I tell them that it’s a part of the healing process and the growth. I’ve been struggling with that for 20 years. Once we figured out a way to share it, I was eager to do so.

“I needed that catalyst and the podcast was the quickest way I figured that I could get it.”

Moroles started his podcast as a way to “find out why people do the things they do,” he said. It began with a focus on entrepreneurship and evolved into a platform to host the memories of a 20-year-old disaster — what some call the 9/11 of the Valley. He watched Espericueta and others who spoke about their insights and experiences open up.

“Something great happens about 30 to 40 minutes into a podcast because people start becoming themselves,” Moroles said. “There’s something that happens between the host and the guests that you get to keep forever — it’s weird, but it’s like an emotional attachment that you have.”

It’s a rapport he built with the three fishermen who participated in the project.

“I guess it’s a therapeutic session,” Moroles said. “That just pulled me more into the story and developed relationships with these guys. All the people they talk about in the podcast we’ve met in person, so this is like a full circle. I’m part of their little tribe, now. I do feel an attachment to it.”

Espericueta both met and reconnected with multiple people during the experience, like Captain Steve Ellis, whose vessel was commandeered by law enforcement officers, Gaspar Hinojosa II, the son of the man whose car crashed into the pillar of the causeway, and Hyde, who prayed with the fishermen and gave them the strength to carry on.

“It’s bittersweet because everybody got to meet again and kind of revisit that night and talk and thank each other and do all of the stuff — that was sweet,” Espericueta said. “But the bitter part is that time is going by super fast and this is going to be behind us very quickly. I didn’t want people to forget that that bridge collapsed. I figured if we put it on a podcast and we eternalized it in that fashion, those of us who want to revisit that night and really dig deep into what happened, now there’s a source for that information.”

So what’s next for the story of the Queen Isabella Causeway collapse? The podcast is finished, Espericueta says, but the next phase has begun. He’s been working on a script for the last 20 years that he’s finally polishing and shopping around. The goal is to make a feature film or documentary series out of the information the podcast dredged from the community’s collective memories. Espericueta says that he’s received plenty of initial interest for funding, and Moroles adds that they hope to shoot a short film this summer to submit to festivals.

For now, Espericueta calls it “surreal” to have his memories out there for everyone to experience.

“I do have people recognize me that have known me for years but didn’t know that I was involved in that or didn’t know that I was there that night,” he said. “People come out and go out of their way to look for you, to talk to you, to tell you, ‘hey, I appreciated the story. I appreciated what you did that night.’ 

“It’s been super positive.”

Guide to the Episodes

Relive the night of the disaster through all episodes of The True Story of the Queen Isabella Causeway Collapse podcast on YouTube, https://bit.ly/33Rmc73.

1: Robert Espericueta tells his story to host Joshua Moroles about fishing beneath the bridge the night the Queen Isabella Causeway collapses.

2: Host Joshua Moroles has Robert Espericueta on camera for the first time as they delve deeper into the night of the collapse. 

3: Host Joshua Moroles and Robert Espericueta call Espericueta’s cousin, Roland Moya, to get his perspective about being on the boat that night.

4: Host Joshua Moroles and Robert Espericueta connect with Gaspar Hinojosa II, the son of the man whose car crashed into the pillar of the causeway.

5: Tony Salinas, another fisherman on the boat that night, reads his official affidavit detailing his account of the night’s events.

6: Tony Salinas joins host Joshua Moroles and Robert Espericueta to explore his memories of the night of the causeway collapse. 

7: JP Montoya, an EMS who pulled Gaspar Hinojosa from his car on the causeway pillar, joins host Joshua Moroles to talk about the experience.

8: Host Joshua Moroles invites questions from the public during a live Q&A session with Robert Espericueta and Roland Moya.

9: Captain Steve Ellis, whose boat was commandeered by law enforcement officers, discusses his memories from the night of the collapse with host Joshua Moroles and Robert Espericueta.

10: Roland Moya joins host Joshua Espericueta to read the affidavit he made on the night of the causeway collapse.

11: Host Joshua Moroles discusses the experiences of Captain Todd Lowry and Captain Darryl Stiers after their experience on the water the night of the collapse.

12: Pastor Steven D. Hyde of Lighthouse Assembly of God in Port Isabel reunites with Robert Espericueta and Roland Moya, two of the fishermen he prayed with on the night of the collapse.

13: Gustavo Morales, a survivor pulled out of the water by the four fishermen on the night of the collapse, talks about his memories with Robert Espericueta and host Joshua Moroles.

14: Host Joshua Moroles and Robert Espericueta talk about their experience with the podcast as a whole and the next steps they will be taking to share the story.

Sound Bites

Come to the podcast to learn the details of what happened during the causeway collapse through the eyes of those who lived it. Stay for the candid discussion about what went wrong and how everyone has been coping ever since. These are a collection of memorable quotes from the 14 episodes.

“Twenty years is a long time. We were ready. We weren’t ready 10 years ago. We weren’t ready five years ago. We definitely weren’t ready a year later, and that’s why the story was just put away.” 

—Roland Moya, one of the fishermen, talking about the timing of coming forward and discussing his experiences

“It just brings back a bunch of memories — kind of like it happened yesterday. Us guys didn’t talk about it because we were all there at the same time. We knew what happened.”

—Tony Salinas, one of the fishermen, reflecting after reading his affidavit from the night of the collapse

“From what I remember, it was just way too long — it felt like maybe 30, 40 minutes. Somebody said the news people were already there — the reporters. I had just started with Brownsville EMS in ’98 and I always said, ‘if you’re still on scene with an injured patient and the reporters show up, you’ve been there too long.’” 

—JP Montoya, talking about removing Gaspar Hinojosa from his vehicle, which had crashed into the pillar of the causeway, and how long it took to get him medical care

“These guys were demanding. They were crazed. They wanted to shoot somebody or arrest somebody or do something — that’s what they’re there for.” 

—Captain Steve Ellis, on the attitude and behavior of the law enforcement officers who commandeered his vessel and made him take them to the tugboat

“There’s a hero in everybody — in all of us. It’s innate. We all want to be of use. I was selfish that night — I didn’t want to get anywhere near that accident. We need to help. That’s the message I want to bring out.” 

—Robert Espericueta, one of the fishermen, on the lesson he wanted his children to understand about why he was doing the podcast

 

Amy Casebier