Baltimore Mourns the Loss of Cultural Identity with the Collapse of Historic Key Bridge

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Generations of Maryland workers — including longshoremen, seafarers, steelworkers, and crabbers whose jobs rely on Baltimore’s port — watched in shock this week as a beloved maritime symbol fell into the Patapsco River.

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The tragic fall of the historic Francis Scott Key Bridge has deeply affected Baltimore.

“What went down was pretty much a tragedy,” remarked Joe Wade, a retired port worker who has fond memories of fishing near the bridge as a youngster. “I’m not one to cry, but… it hit me hard.”

Baltimore’s identity as a port predates its official status as a city, even before America’s independence from Britain. The city’s brick rowhouses originally housed fishermen, dockworkers, and sailors, known for their pioneering spirit and resilience against harsh seas and long workdays.

This tough, pioneering spirit lives on in watermen like Ryan “Skeet” Williams, who earns his keep crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay.

“We’re made of tough stuff,” he stated. “Your life, you build it yourself.”

For Williams, the Key Bridge was a vital link between his maritime community outside Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, crucial for the state’s vibrant seafood market. It was part of the daily routine for many of his friends and family.

Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333, mentioned the union represents around 2,400 workers now in limbo. The Port of Baltimore can’t restart shipping operations until they clear the bridge’s underwater remains.

“It’s always been the port that made the city,” Cowan said, who became a longshoreman like his father before him.

Tuesday’s disaster is another hardship for a city that’s often overshadowed by more recent issues like poverty, crime, and population decline, despite its rich history.

The collapse, caused by a 985-foot (300-meter) cargo ship crashing into the bridge due to a power failure, claimed the lives of six road crew workers, disrupting maritime traffic to one of the east coast’s major ports.

Post-collapse, there were questions about whether better protection was needed for the bridge’s supports against the massive container ships passing by regularly. Baltimore, an old city, suffers from aging infrastructure that seldom gets attention from national policymakers.

Plans to rebuild the Key Bridge have been announced, but it’s a long road ahead.

“This bridge isn’t just any bridge. It’s among the greats of American infrastructure,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Baltimore. “So, getting back to normal won’t be quick, easy, or cheap.”

A deep history: Francis Scott Key and countless dockworkers

Baltimore emerged as a global shipbuilding leader early on, later becoming a major transportation center with a railroad that connected the east coast to the Midwest and beyond.

During the 1812 war, British forces aimed to weaken Baltimore’s industrial and maritime strength. However, American forces held Fort McHenry in south Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the national anthem after seeing the American flag defiantly flying post-bombardment.

More than 150 years later, the Key Bridge was built, a tribute to him, facilitating movement across Baltimore’s harbor without city detours, connecting communities born from the World War II defense effort.

Baltimore’s narrative is full of unique figures, from pirates and corrupt officials to Edgar Allan Poe and Billie Holiday, with the port being a constant presence, offering many a decent living.

Today, it leads in processing cars and farm machinery. Last year, it managed $80 billion in foreign cargo, as stated by Maryland Gov. Wes Moore.

“The Key Bridge collapse isn’t just a crisis for Maryland. It’s a worldwide issue,” he declared. “Both national and global economies depend on the Port of Baltimore.”

The collapse took a toll on Baltimore’s working-class communities

The collapse victims were repairing potholes overnight. Despite traffic being halted after the ship’s distress signal, the crew wasn’t warned in time, leading to a tragic end for these Latino immigrants chasing the American dream.

Two were immediately rescued, and two bodies found the next day. Four are missing, presumed dead.

Their deaths highlight the broader challenges immigrants face in the U.S., performing tough, low-wage jobs during unsociable hours to keep daily life smooth for Maryland commuters.

Unsurprisingly, these marginalized workers bore the brunt of the tragedy, observed Krish O’Mara Vignarajah from the Baltimore-based nonprofit Global Refuge. Immigrants are likely to be key in the bridge’s reconstruction too.

Coming from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, these workers sought better opportunities, contributing to Baltimore’s diverse immigrant legacy that’s deeply connected to the port.

From the Civil War to World War I, Baltimore was a major entry point for European immigrants, enriching the city’s cultural and commercial fabric alongside African Americans fleeing the south’s slavery.

“Baltimore has truly become a melting pot,” said historian Johns Hopkins of Baltimore Heritage.

Recently, Latino immigrants have made Baltimore home, though other cities have seen larger influxes.

CASA, a local immigrant advocacy group, has reached out to the families of Maynor Suazo Sandoval and Miguel Luna, who are still missing. Both were fathers and husbands who left their countries over 15 years ago.

“These workers are crucial,” stated Gustavo Torres from CASA. “Despite the hostility towards immigrants, the dedication of Maynor and Miguel exemplifies the silent backbone supporting our society.”

The Key Bridge was more than just infrastructure; it was a daily part of many lives.

As Baltimoreans woke to the news of its fall, disbelief spread through social media. Watching the collapse footage repeatedly brought a surreal sense of vulnerability.

Residents gathered near the site to reflect and mourn. Some remembered watching the bridge’s construction, a constant in their lives now gone.

“The city mourns,” said Mayor Brandon Scott. “But Baltimore’s resilience is unmatched. Our history with the port defines us, and this is just another chapter of us rising again. We’re a city that doesn’t quit.”

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