The Francis Scott Key Bridge was built the same year Steve Becker was born, so he has known it all his life.

“On a clear day,” he said, “you can see it from all over the place.”

Becker grew up in Dundalk, as did his father and one of his grandmothers, and still lives there, commuting to an office near the Inner Harbor where he works as a software engineer.

On the night of March 25, Becker went to bed late, as he has been in the bad habit of doing, so he was not sound asleep when he heard what sounded to him like metal being dragged across asphalt. Some idiot must have run over a trash can and taken it for a ride down the alley, he thought.

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Steve Becker of Dundalk was born in 1977, the year the Key Bridge opened. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Becker was not the only Dundalk resident who registered the sound. To some, the collapse of the bridge sounded like the roar of an aircraft; to others, the rumbling of a train or simply a thump. Some felt their homes shudder.

If bridges are places, the Key Bridge was Dundalk, where the roadway descends to the north. The span with its sights and sounds was a constant for the 67,000 residents of the former Bethlehem Steel company town. The two were married by steel. They were both made of it, one literally, the other figuratively.

Becker didn’t know it yet, but he had seen the bridge for the last time.

The destruction of the Key Bridge, almost one week ago, has been measured mostly by numbers:

Six lives lost. Two bodies recovered. Four men missing.

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An $80 billion port cut off by a shattered bridge 1.6 miles wide and 47 years old. Struck by a ship 984 feet long and weighing 116,000 tons fully loaded.

Work has begun at the site of the Key Bridge collapse, which happened nearly a week ago. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Behemoth floating cranes will remove the steel and concrete blocking the channel. Until then, eight ships, including the Dali, are stuck in the Port of Baltimore. So are their crews, at least 150 accidental Baltimoreans.

Baltimore is the country’s No. 1 port for the importation of cars and light trucks, about 850,000 last year. About $27 billion in vehicles and vehicle parts went through the port in 2023.

More numbers to measure what was lost: 5% of U.S. trade, 50 million tons of cargo a year, 8,000 dock jobs, 15,000 port jobs, 140,000 indirect jobs and at least $2 million in daily wages.

Gone, too, are 35,000 daily commuters across the bridge, and 8% of state toll revenue.

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But other losses cannot be expressed in numbers, such as connection and memory. And the loss of faith that a permanent and immoveable structure will always stand. When the bridge fell, reality for many was reordered.

“I don’t think I fully realize that it’s gone yet,” Becker said.

The Key Bridge was a path, part of a beltway around Baltimore whose shape roughly resembled a left-facing profile of a person’s head. The Key Bridge was its chin. Built for utility, not beauty, the bridge joined Anne Arundel County to its south and west to Baltimore County to its north and east.

On the Anne Arundel County side, the bridge landed at Fort Armistead Park and Hawkins Point, home to a landfill, a Coast Guard shipyard and other ship terminals. On the Baltimore County side, the bridge landed in a more peopled landscape, among neighborhoods and parks and a golf course and the enormous Tradepoint Atlantic freight hub where the Bethlehem Steel plant once stood. Industry has always nested alongside people in Dundalk. Tudors and tankers. Townhomes and tractor-trailers. Steel containers and sand traps.

Crews work to complete the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore prior to its 1977 opening. (Courtesy: Maryland Transportation Authority)

Steel was the unifier. The building material of modern life was also the bringer of life in Dundalk.

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When Becker was a child, his lullaby was the clanking sound of scrap metal dumped into a furnace. Occasionally, he heard the sound of a pressure explosion, the staccato to the legato of tumbling metal. The sound traveled especially well in the winter. Fewer leaves muffled the sound, which echoed more sharply and loudly off the hard ground.

When he got older, he got a summer job working for a subcontractor that sold scrap to Bethlehem — his father, Edward Becker, worked at the plant as an electrician. The sound of metal he heard early Tuesday morning, the one he thought was a trash can on asphalt, was not unfamiliar to him. It was simply the sound of Dundalk.

The small universe of the bridge, with Dundalk at its center, is also a land of fishing piers, jetties, boat ramps, baseball diamonds with outfields that back up to the water’s edge and backyard docks lining the coves that feed into Bear Creek, which in turn feeds into the Patapsco River. In Dundalk, it is common for a working family to own a boat and belong to a yacht club, although not the kind Thurston Howell III was a member of.

As in other cities, much of the old character of Baltimore was retained in its nearby suburbs — in Dundalk, Sparrows Point and Edgemere, which are just outside the city limits in Baltimore County. Here is Cruiser’s Pit Beef, dimly lit with open trays of horseradish and sliced raw onions, and squeeze bottles of every kind of barbecue sauce. Pickup trucks, Pontiac Firebirds and Corvettes are the rides of choice. The real Baltimore is just as much here as in hipster Hampden, bohemian Bromo Arts District or fashionable Fells Point.

Few in Dundalk are wealthy, but easy access to the water makes their lives feel rich. Tiki Lee’s Dock Bar is a temporary, imagined voyage to the South Pacific, complete with sand and palm trees, a humorous interruption to the nearby warehouses, the crane and rigging shop, the storage yards for cars and steel containers.

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Chris Desautelle of Baltimore, cleans his boat in Dundalk on Sunday, March 31. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Whimsy and camp are coping tools in Dundalk, evident at the Hard Yacht Café, where Lynch Cove meets Bear Creek, “just north of Key West,” as its website says. The café is attached to the Anchor Bay East Marina. Both have become the unofficial comfort station for the first responders and the crews working the bridge site in round-the-clock shifts.

A harbor pilot boat was recently tied up at the marina, normally home to cabin cruisers, sport fishing boats and the occasional pleasure yacht. Anchor Bay East has provided bathrooms, showers, free meals, hot coffee, snacks and fuel for boats. When word got out that all food was half off for bridge workers, the regulars started buying gift cards to pay for the other half.

“It’s so incredible,” said Melanie Seymour, one of the marina’s minority owners. “Thousands of dollars have been donated to offset the rest of the meals. They’re saying, we don’t want these people paying for meals while they’re out there doing what they’re doing.”

The community, Seymour said, has “thrown its arms around the workers.”

Melanie Seymour, minority owner of the Hard Yacht Cafe and Anchor Bay East Marina, shows snack bags packed for first responders that use the marina as a pit stop in Dundalk on Friday, March 29, 2024.
Melanie Seymour, minority owner of the Hard Yacht Café and Anchor Bay East Marina, shows snack bags packed for bridge workers who use the marina as a pit stop in Dundalk. (Hugo Kugiya/The Baltimore Banner)

While that sentiment is surely shared by people far and wide, it’s the people closest to the bridge who took the obligation to help most to heart.

Dundalk resembles other waterborne communities on the East Coast, like some of the villages on the south shore of Long Island, New York, or the backwater boroughs of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, places where the main pastime is fishing, places with that one Italian restaurant the whole family has eaten at for generations, and the local mall that has seen better times. But Dundalk’s industrial heritage sets it apart.

When Bob Romiti’s parents, Joe and Mary Romiti, bought Squire’s Café on Holabird Avenue in 1952, the tavern was already a local landmark with a loyal base of customers who worked at the steel plant, men who made a regular stop at Squire’s for a shot and a beer, and perhaps to place bets on horse races. Holabird had been paved for many years but was still referred to as Shell Road because it had been previously topped with oyster shells.

Squires Italian Restaurant owner Bob Romiti stands near a century-old blackboard that was used to post horse race results when Squires was a saloon in Dundalk on Friday, March 29, 2024. The space used to be his family’s apartment when he was a child.
Squire’s owner Bob Romiti stands near a century-old blackboard that was used to post horse race results when Squire’s was a saloon in Dundalk. (Hugo Kugiya/The Baltimore Banner)

The Romitis kept the original name and started serving food for the first time. Customers ate spaghetti on barstools. The family lived in the same building, raising their children, Bob, Lorenzo and Teresa, in the apartment above the bar. A few years later, they built a small kitchen and started making pizza. Squire’s Italian Restaurant still operates from the same building Fred Squires built in the 1920s on what used to be farmland, although it has grown considerably over several renovations into a full-service restaurant and catering business. The family apartment is now a banquet room. Romiti saved the old chalkboard, with horse race results from a century ago still legible.

Bob, the oldest of his siblings, no longer lives in Dundalk but runs the business with help from his children, Mary, Robairta and Joe. He called his local councilmember to see how he could donate food to bridge workers. Other local restaurant owners are interested in doing the same. The effort is in logistics limbo.

“That’s the kind of community this is,” he said. “I don’t want to stick my nose in there with food and get in the way.”

He was a young man when the bridge was built, and he remembers the construction well. He thought it was beautiful when it was finished. The week it opened, he rode his Harley over it.

Change had already arrived. Sparrows Point was quieting. The labor force was disappearing and changing. Bethlehem, GM and Western Electric faded. Johns Hopkins arrived with a warehouse and clinics, and so did Amazon and its now ubiquitous trucks.

“It was more free and wild back then,” said Romiti, 74, who still owns that Harley. He often rode over the bridge not to get anywhere but for the view of the steel plant as it transformed into what it is today.

Riding is when Bob said he feels most alive, when the passing scenery looks as if it could be art. Going over the bridge felt close to flying as he ascended to its apex, suspended above the bay, the air pressing hard against him.

He was riding on the bridge on a Saturday afternoon decades ago when a piece of paper he had tucked into his sleeve flew out. It had directions to his son’s baseball game. This was before the days of Waze and GPS, and he needed that paper. He parked his Harley at one end of the bridge and walked back onto the deck. Hardly a car passed, he remembered. The shoulder was narrow. By some miracle, he found the paper. When he got back to his motorcycle, a cop pulled up with lights flashing.

“What are you doing?” he shouted. “Are you crazy?”

To police, Romiti would learn later, a vehicle parked at the end of the bridge with no person in sight usually meant someone jumped.

Views from North Point Road in Dundalk, Sunday, March 31, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Norma Hamel, 83, and her husband started building their house in Dundalk the same year construction began on the bridge, about four miles away. The finished bridge made shopping at her favorite stores in Anne Arundel County much easier for Hamel. It almost felt like they built the bridge just for her.

“It’s a landmark,” she said. “It’s sad. We still pray for the guys that are under there. Their families …”

She slept through all the commotion of Monday night, including the sirens that woke her neighbors. This being Dundalk, Hamel was in the habit of turning on a white noise machine. Rain is her preferred sound.

Baltimore doesn’t quite have the equivalent of a Space Needle or an Empire State Building, or Griffith Park, a perch from which to gather in the full width of the city. But it had the Key Bridge. From it, you could see everything, even if you had to keep moving.

“I purposely used the bridge instead of the tunnels,” said Neil Bixler, an attorney who lives in Canton. “You can see the whole industrial part of Baltimore. You can see the city on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. It’s the only view of the city like it.”

Bixler, his daughter, son-in-law and grandson were among the hundreds who attended a fundraiser at Key Brewing Friday in Dundalk. Their parked cars lined both sides of Grays Road for about a half-mile. Port workers were the beneficiaries of the event, but the bridge was the symbol everyone rallied around, its image printed on the T-shirts that quickly sold out.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski pours a beer at Key Brewing Co. in Dundalk. Olszewski was tending bar as part of a fundraiser for port workers hurt by the collapse of the Key Bridge. (Kaitlin Newman)

One of those who bought one was a Baltimore County employee named Lisa — she declined to give her last name because her boss, County Executive Johnny Olszewski, was also at the event. The bridge took her back to 1999 and the first Starscape dance festival in Fort Armistead Park. She remembered watching the sun come up over the bridge as the rave ended. The Baltimore Sun, in a 2001 article about the rave, cited “the panoramic views of the Chesapeake Bay, the Key Bridge and Baltimore’s industrial heritage” in the lead paragraph. Starscape ended in 2012 when the city pulled its permit.

This week, the Key Bridge was more than Dundalk’s bridge. It was Baltimore’s bridge, the state’s bridge and the nation’s bridge. Lisa got a call of concern from one of her vendors in Michigan. Romiti got a call first thing in the morning from a worried friend in Australia. For at least some minutes, anyone who lived within driving distance of Baltimore became a potential casualty to those who were far away.

The closer you lived to the bridge, the more you felt its collapse emotionally. Heather Stein and her longshoreman husband moved to Dundalk a year ago from Brooklyn Park. While her husband worked, she and their three children, aged 7 to 10, took three to four round trips over the bridge every week, for activities and appointments.

Traversing the bridge was the highlight of the children’s day, she said. From up high, they all counted the big ships in port, “to see if Daddy’s got work,” Stein said. “They would see all the fishing boats, all the cranes, all the ships at the ports, and they’d ask, which ship is Daddy working on? When we got home, they’d say ‘we saw your ship, Daddy!’”

Views from North Point Road in Dundalk, Sunday, March 31. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Becker, the software engineer, attended the University of Maryland Baltimore County after graduating from Dundalk High School. He commuted to college daily over the Key Bridge. He became a biologist and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before changing professions.

He lived briefly in Essex but otherwise spent almost his entire life in Dundalk. The bridge became a permanent marker of home, no different than his street, his driveway or his front door.

As a boy, he fished under and near the bridge for rockfish, perch and flounder, with his father, uncles and siblings. They owned a boat, lived on one of the coves and had a small pier behind their backyard.

“It was a great childhood,” he said.

To locate their fishing spots, they triangulated their position using the bridge and various smokestacks. The bridge was the constant, “a fixture of Baltimore and a landmark I’m used to seeing on the horizon,” Becker said. “Whenever I saw the bridge, I knew I was almost home.”