On a Bridge Falling Down

Revisiting Thornton Wilder’s 1927 classic 'Bridge of San Luis Rey'

Today at 1:20 a.m., a container ship struck the finest bridge in all Baltimore, causing its collapse and leaving seven vehicles to drop into the bay below. The bridge was on the ring road around Baltimore and tens of thousands of people passed over it every day. It had been woven of steel a half century before, and visitors to the city were often led out to see it.

If the preceding lines sound familiar, it’s because they’re a riff on the opening sentences of Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey, a 1927 novel about the collapse of a rope bridge in Peru that killed five travelers. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan who witnessed the collapse, was intrigued by what brought those five people together at that moment on that bridge.

I could not help but reflect on that question as I watched video [here] of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. The steel arch bridge carries the Baltimore Beltway — the ring road around the city — over the harbor. It is also a crossroads for southbound travelers on I-95; those going southwest to Washington continued on that road, while those headed southeast to Annapolis and Maryland’s Eastern Shore broke off to I-695… and the bridge.

The bridge was struck by a ship headed out of the Port of Baltimore. The video is shocking. Within about fifteen seconds, the entire midspan of a major highway bridge plunges 185 feet into the water below.

Memento mori. We pray for those injured or killed. As of this morning, no official casualty numbers have been posted. But who would have expected, at that late hour, to die while routinely driving over a routine bridge at a time when vehicles on the road are few? It elicits memories of the 1983 collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 near Stamford, Connecticut, which also went down around 1:30 a.m., killing three people. “But for the grace of God go I.”

Brother Juniper decided to probe the lives of the victims of the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey because “either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.” Sometimes the plans of God are indeed inscrutable. Perhaps an answer is to be found in Romans 14:8: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

For those who fell when the bridge did, let our prayer be that of the Navy Hymn (appropriate given the connection to Annapolis): “Hear us Father when we cry to Thee//For those in peril on the sea!”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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