We all drive, or at least most of us do.

Here’s a funny thing about that. In the age of the automobile, when a car is an extension of ourselves, where you drive is probably a bigger part of what defines you than what you drive.

If you crossed the Francis Scott Key Bridge daily on your way to work and back, the 1.6-mile erector set confection that served as an entrance to the outer harbor was a frame of reference on the world.

Did seeing it rise up 185 feet from the Patapsco River, crossing the shipping channel to the far shore, make you think of mom and rest?

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Or was it an engineering feat sure to make you grip the wheel white-knuckle tight? As you accelerated through its steel truss supports, could you admire the view or were you trying not to look anywhere but at the taillights ahead of you?

Did wind warnings make you circumnavigate the city, taking the 45-mile beltway roundabout to Baltimore’s southern shores?

And did you ever — in those moments of worry that fill a fingernail moonful of time between sleep and wake — dream it would be gone one morning? Suddenly. Poof. It’s knocked from our world by an errant container behemoth, save for broken girders jutting from the cold gray river and a blurry video collision playing forever on the universal doom loop.

I got a 7 a.m. phone call from my daughter Tuesday. It was a scared morning check-in, the kind you make to curb your worries and confirm the person on the other end has survived something terrible. She knows I commute to Baltimore a few times a week, but the way I drive was a mystery that she suddenly needed solved.

“I just wanted to make sure you were OK,” she said.

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I am, but others are not.

Community members react to news and grieve the possible loss of loved ones in the Key Bridge collapse during a vigil at Mt. Olive Baptist Church of Turner Station on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

I have driven the Key Bridge often enough — on the way to Bengies Drive-In Theatre for a June triple feature, to Duda-Ruck Funeral Home in Dundalk after the death of a colleague, or Martin State Airport for an interview. But my life is defined by other bridges and roads.

Deb Rudacille got those early morning messages too. Her son and daughter in this time zone sent texts, and then her daughter in California followed once the news broke in her morning news.

“My mom worked at what was formerly the toll facilities,” Rudacille said. “She was one of the original employees when they opened the Key Bridge and opened that facility.”

Rudacille is a chronicler of this corner of America, with books that capture what was lost with the closure of the old Sparrows Point steelworks. The Key Bridge is part of her identity, even though her family moved away just two years after it opened in 1977.

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Her brother graduated from high school and went to work painting the bridge. When it opened, her mother was there collecting the 75-cent toll.

Now her family is trying to make sense of being violently cut off from that past, of losing the last structure still crossing the gulf to yesterday.

“They were kind of reminiscing about the fact that everything down there is now gone,” Rudacille said. “First the steelworks, now the Key Bridge is gone. It’s like this world that they lived and worked in has vanished completely.”

There are other, more serious losses of course.

Six people are still missing, and after more fruitless searching, hopes are dimming. Rudacille, who teaches English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said her brother moved from that job painting the bridge years ago to driving trucks at the Port of Baltimore.

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He might be out of work for weeks or months until the debris is cleared from the channel and shipping restored. We’re all going to be getting our Amazon packages from China later, but that’s small stuff compared to families whose loved ones fell with the bridge or whose jobs are wrecked.

“It’s a landmark that defines an area,” said Rudacille, author of “Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town.” “I don’t know if you’d call it an aesthetic loss, in addition to the loss of life and the economic loss.”

There was never much of a fan club for the Key Bridge. Sure, there were a few who found its familiar lines artful.

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But even from its opening as the final link in the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 695, this bridge got less respect than it probably deserved. It was supposed to open earlier than it did, but construction projects being what they are, 1977 was better than 1980.

According to an Associated Press story of the day, there was no fanfare, just roadblocks removed and a vague promise of some later ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Baltimore Sun sounded underwhelmed, noting the “crow’s nest” view it provided in the few hundred words devoted to it on the editorial page by way of explaining the significance of the event to its readers.

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“For the first time, Baltimore is completely enclosed in a beltway. For the first time, too, sparsely settled portions of Anne Arundel and southeastern Baltimore County are tied directly to the East Coast car/truck movements. Shifts in traffic will bring gains and losses in commercial and industrial life, but which occurs where will be known only at some future time, when it’s too late to change course.”

That video, the slow-motion collision of the 984-foot Dali, may be the thing we one day remember most about the Key Bridge.

“The thing that’s so shocking, when you look at the video, the whole bridge just crumpled in seconds,” Rudicille said. “I had to watch that video a couple of times because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

“Technology failed.”

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge looms large in my mind because I’ve lived most of my life on both sides of its suspension spans. It has a fan club, although perhaps that’s the wrong way to describe “Bay Bridge Traffic Complaints” on Facebook.

It’s filled with 8,000-plus people whose lives are affected daily by its seemingly endless succession of plunges over the side by cars and trucks, fires, accidents, suicides, traffic jams and whiteouts caused by thick bay fog.

Even these folks, a community hardened by life with miles of steel and concrete between two points of land, recognized that the collapse of the Key Bridge was something unique, a tragedy we hadn’t experienced before.

Yet we’re all defined by the roads we drive, even in the way we view a catastrophe.

“I live in Delaware. To avoid the Bay Bridge I would drive north and down [Interstate] 95 and go across Key Bridge,” one member posted Tuesday. “This is devastating.”