Jewish First Responders Offer Aid Following Key Bridge Collapse

From left: Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum and Gov. Wes Moore (Courtesy of JUSA-Chabad)

The collapse of the Key Bridge and the presumed deaths of six construction workers who were on the bridge when it fell — two of their bodies have since been recovered — have sent shockwaves through Baltimore.

The tragedy, which occurred on March 26 when the cargo ship Dali collided with one of the bridge’s pillars, led Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott to issue a state of emergency as local officials and law enforcement investigate the collapse and organize a cleanup of the wreckage.

In addition to the victims and the elected officials who are unraveling how the collapse happened and how to deal with it, public attention has turned to the first responders and aid workers who arrived on the scene and have been helping since then. From the police officers who closed the bridge to traffic before it collapsed to the EMTs who transported a recovered survivor to the hospital, to even the divers who have been searching the wreckage for the victims’ bodies, Baltimore residents have been showing their support for these first responders who acted so quickly in response to the disaster.

Among these first responders are a few Jewish Baltimoreans who recounted their experiences with and reflections on the Key Bridge collapse. One of the chaplains who arrived to offer support to the families of the victims was Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, law enforcement chaplain and director of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland-Chabad.

“I was shocked. It definitely brought back some memories of 9/11 when I first found out,” Tenenbaum said of his initial reaction. Tenenbaum previously recounted his experience watching 9/11 unfold in a Jewish Times profile. “Being there during tragedies like this is definitely one of the harder parts of being a chaplain, but just being there is a comfort.”

The families of the victims primarily spoke Spanish, so Tenenbaum and the other chaplains on the scene communicated with them via an interpreter. None of the families are Jewish, but chaplains from across the religious spectrum still arrived to offer moral support.

Tenenbaum said that even if there is no shared Jewish identity between him and the victims, just being there as a chaplain can make a world of difference.

“You don’t always have to say something. Just being there gives them strength,” he said. “My line that I always use is that God can give them the strength they need in these trying times.”

After comforting the families, Tenenbaum went to the Maryland Transportation Authority Police headquarters and spoke with several first responders, giving them spiritual support and thanking them for their work. He also met Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, who took a moment to pray for the victims with him.

He added that as the head of JUSA-Chabad, he has received calls from concerned citizens asking how they can help in the face of such a tragedy. Tenenbaum noted that one of the best things people can do is to support their local first responders.

“It was special being there with people who are basically heroes. I was talking with one of the first responders about the miracle that occurred as well, that they were able to close the bridge in time,” he said. “Many more lives could have been lost.”

One of the first responders called to the scene of the collapse was Avi Schulman, a firefighter and EMT. Schulman, along with the other members of his department, was tasked with setting up a command meeting area for other first responders. They brought special equipment, including lighting, tables and chairs and body bags, to the scene for easy access.

“When the sirens went off, I slid down the fire pole and saw my captain running towards the apparatus,” he recalled. “I asked him what the call was, and he said, ‘A boat hit the bridge.’ I was confused, because [our department] is in a totally landlocked area; we even have to bring our own water to fires. But then we made it to the actual site.”

Schulman has not been back to the collapse site since that first day, but he noted that the show of support his fellow first responders have received is heartening.

“What stood out to me was how the community in that area helped out. The entire community brought food to the first responders,” Schulman said. “We had people show up bringing Dunkin’, and even some people who brought crab. Everyone’s just doing their best and trying to help.”

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