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The Key Bridge Wasn’t “Just a Bridge” to Us

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By: Derek Arnold

First things first: None of this is meant to, in any way, undercut the most important fallout of the tragedy – the workers who lost their lives, or who are still missing. They and their families are front of mind for everyone at RSR.

Early on the morning of March 26, as I was scrolling through my phone in utter disbelief at the surreal yet seemingly very real news of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse, I received a text message from one of my lifelong best friends.

“Why am I all in my feelings over a bridge?” he asked.

The words shot through me like a lightning bolt. I had the exact same thought. Throughout the day, I saw several friends, most of whom had grown up in the same neighborhood I did, express similar feelings.

Along with, of course, the outpourings of thoughts and prayers for the men on the bridge when it fell and their families amid the ongoing rescue effort, there was much of this:

“I’m surprised at how emotional I am about the physical bridge being gone.”

In trying to process it all – an ongoing effort, to be sure – I came to understand that, for a certain group of people, the Key Bridge was far more than “just a bridge.”

For people who grew up in and around its shadow – namely folks from areas like Dundalk, Essex, Middle River, Curtis Bay, and Pasadena – the Bridge marked home.

While driving along the Baltimore beltway, you could see the truss of the expanse peeking up over the horizon around curves and smokestacks from miles away.

If you were lucky enough to be on a boat in the Patapsco River, the Bridge was a constant reminder of how close – or far away – you had ventured from the place you lay your head each night.

Key bridge collapse
My Dad walked down the street and took this

When I think back, I am hit with the thought that, other than like, the walls of my own homes, the Key Bridge may have been the physical, man-made structure I laid eyes on more than any other in my 40-plus years on this earth (those smokestacks are probably up there too…but it’s close.)

Upon further reflection, I came to realize that it was, by far, my favorite bridge to drive across. In any direction you looked, there were things to see.

To the north, the Baltimore city skyline.

To the east, the immense port machinery and the abandoned steel-making equipment of Sparrows Point.

To the west, the – admittedly un-pretty – Brandon Shores power plant. But further down, the shores where my childhood home sits, where my parents have lived since 1986, the bridge’s ninth birthday.

To the south, the also abandoned Fort Carroll, which I used to imagine was a mini Jurassic Park as a child. Further on, the Patapsco opening up into the wider Chesapeake Bay. On very clear days, you could see both the Key and Bay bridges at the same time, something my father loved to point out when bringing guests on his boat years ago.

Speaking of boats, I think those of us fortunate enough to have spent any appreciable time on the water around the area have even heavier hearts at the moment.

As a child, my Dad always had a boat. We kept it in the second creek down the Patapsco south of the Key Bridge. By water, two miles. The Bridge? A constant and permanent backdrop for countless hours of fishing, crabbing, cruising, and enjoying many a warm day beneath the sun and ospreys.

I’ve noticed more and more photo and video tributes pouring in, and the majority seem to be from folks I know through our shared love of fishing the Chesapeake Bay.

Here’s one from Steve Salanik that had me reaching for the tissue box.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Steve Salanik Jr. (@stevemsalanik)

That captures it perfectly. In so many of our cherished memories of friends and family, the Bridge is there, looking over us, stretching across the backdrop like not an unwelcome interloper, but a welcomed companion.

Many of you are likely familiar with local musician Joey Harkum. He grew up in the same neighborhood as me. His band was named Pasadena. Yeah, he gets it. He posted something he had previously filmed, using the Key Bridge as a backdrop.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Joey Harkum (@joeyharkum)

In the most famous piece of modern art about Baltimore, David Simon’s epic television series The Wire, there are countless local landmarks featured.

Fort McHenry. The Natty Boh sign, winking at us through the night. Lexington Market. Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But for us, by far, the symbol that made us sit up and say, “yes, that’s it. That’s my home?”

Those that featured the Key Bridge in the background.

Scenes from The Wire S2E4 “Hard Cases”

And it’s gone.

Like that. In the blink of an eye.

Without comparing tragedies (please, please don’t twist my words into doing just that)… I found myself thinking that this is how New Yorkers must have felt looking up and seeing the Twin Towers gone after 9/11.

(One more time: Please don’t say “this guy is saying it’s like 9/11!”)

The palpable sense of loss is like someone came and snatched the damn sun out of the sky on us overnight.

As the national news crews get bored and move on (my parents’ neighborhood remains filled with news vans and lookie-loos as I type this) to the next thing, we in Baltimore are left to pick up the pieces. My wife used the Bridge to commute to work three times a week. Along with tens of thousands of others, she’ll be funneled into alternate routes, causing who knows how many headaches, accidents, and worse in the coming years. The mess the international shipping community is facing is well beyond my scope of understanding. Local businesses, cut off from their customers as well as their supply chains, will struggle to adjust on the fly.

All of that is, of course, extremely important, and will affect the lives of Baltimoreans for the foreseeable future.

For those not from around here, I would ask them to please, when talking to someone from B’More, especially northern Anne Arundel or eastern Baltimore counties, take these words to heart:

We ARE all in our feelings about a bridge.

Because to us, it wasn’t just a bridge.

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Originally posted on Russell Street Report