Did you see what happened?

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Were you on the bridge?

After taking his first night off in 40 days, Mandel Brown awoke March 26 to a flurry of texts and missed calls. A Maryland native and newly licensed trucker, Brown’s GPS showed that he had been on track to arrive at the Key Bridge at what turned out to be roughly the same time it collapsed.

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Exhaustion led to a lucky turn of fate: He had decided to rest that night in Virginia and resume his next leg in the morning.

For the past 47 years, the Key Bridge has been a mainstay for cross-country and local freight drivers, many of them looking to avoid the two tunnels that cross the Patapsco River at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The tunnels are notoriously congested and tight for semitrailer trucks, and some drivers can’t use them because of height and cargo restrictions.

The loss of the thoroughfare that carried over 12 million vehicles annually has ratcheted up pressure on already-stressed local truckers who frequented the Key Bridge. Their lives for the foreseeable future now involve more traffic, longer and slower routes and, for many, a new fear of infrastructure failing in ways they’d never before considered.

“It’s terrifying for a trucker right now,” said Brown, 33, who lives in Severn.

Less than two months into truck driving, the tragedy has reshaped how he views his profession. Yes, he knew trucking is a dangerous job where braking too late or driving too fast could have fatal consequences. But he said the collapse has him questioning the integrity of the structures he uses to drive every day.

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He recalled two incidents in the past year of crosswinds on bridges plunging trucks with light tractor-trailers toward the water below — one on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and another in Kentucky.

To him, it all seems to all be piling up. He said he has decided to stop driving on overwater bridges, even if it means going 50 or 60 miles out of his way. That might seem overly cautious for such an unlikely occurrence, he admitted, but so was the Key Bridge tragedy itself.

“You never picture something like that happening, even when it happened,” Brown said.

A truck stop in Jessup on April 13, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

A more seasoned truck driver who preferred a life on the road to one behind desks, Kim Freeman said the Key Bridge collapse turned a job she has loved for 15 years into one that she dreads.

Freeman, a 53-year-old who lives in Edgemere, said she would use the bridge daily to get to work, then another 10 to 12 times each day for deliveries in the Baltimore area. Without the height and cargo restrictions of tunnels, the bridge was a more convenient, and often faster, route for truckers to transport freight across Maryland.

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In its absence, freight drivers like Freeman are forced to use the tunnels, where truckers have little room for error driving a hulking vehicle that is often nearly as tall as the underpass itself.

Close calls happen all too often in the tunnels, Freeman said. Sometimes after she exits one, she pulls over, hands shaking, tearing up.

Freeman said she has never seen traffic this bad in Baltimore, or driving this aggressive. Her Monday to Friday 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift has since stretched to 6:30 p.m., she said. The time crunch has meant not seeing her grandson for weeks, instead of every couple of days, like before the collapse, she said.

“I’m actually thinking about just changing jobs, just getting out of trucking altogether,” Freeman said. “It’s just such a tough job anymore, and it’s not so much the work, it’s just everything that’s going on.”

Truck driver Steve Taylor and his son Ryan Taylor, a dockworker, pose for a portrait at Royal Farms in Middle River on April 13, 2024. Steve made an untypical stop at this Royal Farms to get gas before heading into work on March 26 and was later stopped just before the Key Bridge when the mayday call went out. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Other truckers said they fixate on the bridge collapse and the six construction workers who died and think: That could have been me.

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A police car raced past Steve Taylor. Then another, and another.

After more than a dozen, he phoned work. He was going to be late for his early morning trucking shift.

“Something’s happened at the bridge,” Taylor, 55, recalled telling his supervisor.

One moment he was driving from the gas station along the same route he has taken for 16 years from his home in Oliver Beach, and the next a police car suddenly stopped him and a handful of other cars at the base of the Key Bridge.

His mind raced with questions. Was there an accident? Were the construction workers he drove past every night OK?

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By the time he got to the office, his son, who works at the same transportation company, raced to him with a video playing on his phone. Taylor watched as the bridge collapsed into the water like a scene from a movie.

Weeks later, Taylor and his friend Mike Latinski, 51, also a trucker, stood outside a Royal Farms gas station in Middle River, still reeling from the disaster.

“Nobody realized how important the bridge was until it went down,” Latinski, who lives in Abingdon, said.

Between the uptick in traffic and accidents, Latinski said the current route workarounds are bound to come undone. During the anticipated five or more years it takes to rebuild the bridge, he wondered, what will his days look like when a tunnel temporarily closes from a bad accident, or when construction chokes traffic on Interstate 95 or Interstate 895?

“It’s inevitable,” he said.

Taylor nodded in agreement. After a week of long drives and little sleep, his loose plans to retire in a few years are becoming more appealing.

He often finds himself replaying the events of that night on loop, wondering about the dangers he so narrowly escaped — but the construction workers did not.

“I still think about it. The workers. Just being so close,” Taylor said. “What if I hadn’t stopped?”

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