Lilly Ordoñez chopped potatoes in the kitchen of her Dundalk cafe while her mother-in-law sliced red peppers for the house sofrito. In a normal week, the restaurant would be humming with customers — people placing orders for the house mofongo or Ordoñez’s creamy flan, washed down with a strong latte made with coffee beans from Puerto Rico.

Tucked inside a flea market in a decrepit strip mall along North Point Boulevard, the dining room of Owls Corner Cafe is a cheery slice of island life, with colorful umbrellas hanging from the ceiling and artwork and crafts from Puerto Rico carefully arranged on the walls. Among the people sitting at tables was usually José Mynor López, who often waited for hours for his wife, Isabel Franco, to finish her shift as a cook.

“He loved seeing her work,” Ordoñez said. “I don’t know why.”

But nothing has been normal since March 26.

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Ordoñez was asleep at her home in Odenton when she got a message from her daughter saying the Francis Scott Key Bridge had fallen. It was the middle of the night, but Ordoñez couldn’t sleep. She felt sick to her stomach thinking of everyone she knows who crosses the bridge daily.

“My entire family crosses that bridge every day, twice a day,” she said. “That’s our commute.”

In the morning, she phoned her employees, including Franco, to make sure they were okay. Franco, whose daughter also works part-time for Owls Corner, wasn’t.

“She broke down in tears,” Ordoñez said. “Her husband was working on the bridge and she didn’t know anything about him.”

Ordoñez threw on some clothes and went to Franco’s house. She decided to close the restaurant for a week while they waited for word of López. One week turned into two. The Owls Corner owner began organizing support for Franco, who had worked at the restaurant since January, and the children Franco and her 35-year-old husband were raising together. A GoFundMe garnered $25,000 in about a day.

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While three of the deceased workers have been found in the wreckage of the bridge, López and two coworkers remain missing. Their bodies, officials say, are trapped beneath mountains of concrete and debris.

Franco told The Baltimore Banner’s media partner WJZ that she hopes to see her husband one last time. “Only God knows how hard my heart aches,” she said.

Ordoñez remembers López as “a very goofy man,” always smiling. “He was a good provider,” she said. “He used to do everything for her.” He often ate chicken soup while he waited for his wife; Ordoñez was always trying to get him to try the Cuban sandwich.

Owls Corner Cafe owner Lilly Ordoñez and her husband, Joel Latorre, make orders on Saturday. For now, Ordoñez’s family is helping her run the cafe on weekends, and she is keeping the business closed on weekdays. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
Diners eat at Owls Corner Cafe on Saturday, the day the business reopened after the Key Bridge collapse. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Shortly after the accident, things spiraled out of hand in the surreal and dizzying way that happens when a normal person is standing near the epicenter of a huge news event. On Instagram, Ordoñez warned customers of an imposter account using the image and name of her business in an effort to fraudulently raise $500,000 on GoFundMe. People online accused her of using the tragedy to promote her business. But if that were true, she said, she’d be on TV everyday. She’s received messages from reporters from CNN and The New York Times.

“Everybody has been in this parking lot asking me questions about [Franco] and her family,” she said. Out of respect, she’s declined to answer almost all of them.

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The restaurant reopens Saturday. For now, Owls Corner will only be open on the weekends, when Ordoñez’s husband and kids can help her out in the kitchen. She knows she’ll probably lose customers. By her estimate, up to 70% of guests come from outside of Baltimore, and many used the Key Bridge to get there.

The Owls Corner Cafe family smile for a photo on Saturday, their first day back to work since the bridge collapse. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Even still, Ordoñez tries to look on the bright side of every situation. She’s grateful that hundreds of people weren’t killed. She’s grateful to be alive.

“We have an opportunity that those six workers did not,” she said. “We need to make the best out of it.”

Every new day, she said, brings 24 hours and 24 opportunities.

Back in the kitchen on Wednesday, she got to work throwing out the food that had spoiled while the business was closed. The next day, when she drove home, she mistakenly turned onto 695 as usual, only remembering when she hit the road block: The bridge was gone.

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