Bridges and Symbols

Long ago I was a young environmental engineer working for a big consulting firm, and one of my first leadership roles was a summer wastewater sampling program at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point Plant on the Patapsco River. There was a lot I remember and a lot I blocked out, but I won’t ever forget the first view of that sprawling 6-square mile industrial city was from the high part of the Francis Scott Key bridge. We shuttled back and forth between the mills and our hotel in Glen Burnie, sometimes getting back after sunset so we'd catch twilight or even a full moon rise from the bridge.

That bridge was high! It also bears visual resemblance to the older span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (US 50 east of Annapolis), which already gave lots of motorists trepidation. After seeing the video of the Key Bridge collapsing early yesterday morning, it surely will do so for more now.

It is staggering to contemplate the scale of yesterday's disaster. To learn of those lost men and their stories, and to hear about the dangers of working on the bridge, both from speeding traffic and the considerable motion of the bridge itself. An important transportation artery has been cut, and one of the busiest East Coast deepwater ports is closed indefinitely. But to those humble working-class communities by the water, houses once home to mill workers working round the clock building the ships that helped win World War II, that bridge meant so much more.

To me, that bridge was a monument to those blue collar muscles - the thousands who dredged and filled, and built the shoreline out and up. They forged the steel, shaped and slid the ships into the water, and maybe fished or crabbed for dinner when the water was clean enough to do so. The FSK was a working class bridge, and seeing it fall seems weirdly symbolic too. 

One day in the future, a new “modern” bridge will span the Patapsco and be a symbol for a new generation. It will be built on the sweat and toil of people both from here and afar, and the power of our 21st century mega-machines. That bridge too will age and take on the illusion of permanence, first in the gleam of its newness and over the decades, as an historic link to an earlier time - our time.

Life really can change in an instant, and we don't often realize how much until the shock starts to wear off.

May those six men rest in the peace that their families will hopefully someday find.

Photo © Steven Madow, used with permission.

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