In January, there was a breed of older gentleman, I’m assuming retired, who liked to stand by the wreckage of the recently fallen Fern Hollow Bridge in Frick Park. You’d be trudging through the snow toward the tangle of cop cars and backhoes up ahead, and just as you neared it, a smiling old guy would emerge, seemingly out of nowhere. “This spot’s OK” he’d start. “But if you really want a good view ….” 

I did want a good view. I wanted it badly. The snow was falling in fat wet clumps and accumulating over the top of my boots, and I didn’t care — I was going to see the damned bridge.

I suppose the impulse to check out a massive pile of crumbled concrete is the same impulse that led me to a career in journalism, though you don’t need a career in journalism to have it. All sorts of people were poking around Frick Park that day, running their hands along the DO NOT CROSS lines as if to say, “How strictly is this thing enforced?” Not one but three kindly old gentlemen offered their advice on where to go, and I found myself on the high point of Bradema Trail. There I joined a small crowd of fellow onlookers, all silent as we looked down into the rubble, marveling at the fact that our local landmark had gone kerplunk. 

My mom and I take a selfie in front of the construction and news crews gathered in my neighborhood. (Noelle Mateer/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

It’s been nearly a year since the bridge collapsed. And for my neighbors and I in Regent Square, just around the corner from the bridge, it’s been all we can talk about. In the early days, I couldn’t take my dog for a walk without getting a “Did you see it yet?” Bridge-watching became a sport. Regent Square’s boundaries are ill-defined — parts of it comprise the city of Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, all diverse in race, age and class. Ironically for a literal broken bridge, the whole thing’s kind of brought us together, and for that I’m grateful.

Though I suppose it helps that it’s a pain in the ass to go anywhere else. One week after the bridge collapsed, my mom came to visit, and she wanted to see it, too. So we went to the newly built observation deck that construction crews had made just to corral onlookers, and we looked down at the bus, still in the ditch below. We could see little moving dots in the distance — people on the Squirrel Hill side, looking down at the same thing. 

Lookie-looing peaked with the removal of the double bus — you’ve seen that iconic photo of the red bus held hundreds of feet in the air. But bridge-watching occurred all year long. I’ve been told someone made a point of peeing off the side of the hollow. Other people shared a meme that read, “What if we kissed at the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge?” Maybe some people really did kiss there. I’ve seen preteens skulk around the rubble with BMX bikes. Dudes with headlamps urban exploring. 

A warning sign is seen at night as part of Three Rivers Outdoors’ night hike through Frick Park in March. (Noelle Mateer/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

In March, as Frick Park was thawing, I strapped on my own headlamp for a night hike organized by Three Rivers Outdoors, a Regent Square business. Three miles in, our guide stopped us midtrail. “We can finish the loop here, or we can do a small detour to go look at the bridge,” she said. My fellow hikers and I voted overwhelmingly for a bridge detour. It was pitch-black, but we started down anyway, trying to discern the crumbly mess. We couldn’t really see it, but our red headlamps lit up the DANGER signs nonetheless. 

In July, a friend visited from New York, and we went to the bridge site after a Pirates game so he could see it. In August, I took photos of two hulking cranes stretching hundreds of feet above the park. That same month, I sat on South Braddock Avenue for 45 minutes as a giant concrete leg was laboriously navigated from the expressway to its new home. This is the extent of my emotional investment in the bridge: I looked up where the legs were coming from and the route they’d be taking, and I marveled briefly at the fact that the legs were from Central Pennsylvania like me. 

I realized I’d gone fully off my rocker a month later, when I recounted the process of laying down concrete beams in great detail to my fiancé, as if this was something that made for great conversation. “At first they’ll fill in the middle parts of each horizontal section,” I said, parroting a news report. “They’ll do 8-foot spans at a time.” 

My propensity for discussing the bridge is strong enough that a friend once found it reason for psychoanalysis. “What is it about the bridge?” she asked me, after I’d updated her on my latest visit to the construction site. “Why are you so obsessed with it?” 

The question should be: Why are all of us so obsessed with it? There are T-shirts, including a Commonwealth Press tee of the bus lifted out by crane. Jokes are elsewhere, too — when I jogged through the Regent Square 5K, signs along the running route read STRONGER THAN THE BRIDGE. I suppose it’s easy to joke about it because a bridge snapping in half in the early morning hours feels like something out of a cartoon. Bridges can just … do that? And our bridge is the one that did? 

Gawking can be disrespectful; I feel bad for the construction crews as they tried work before they built the observation deck. And I worry that some of the gawkers, especially those who came from far away just to snap photos, forget the real tragedy of all this. No one died, but people were seriously injured. And I think it’s safe to say that even those who weren’t physically harmed experienced serious psychological trauma. 

But that sense of narrowly escaped disaster — the fact that it could have been so much worse — is why so many of us were drawn to the site in the first place. In conversations with my neighbors, there’s a sense of shared gratitude, a palpable relief. We’re grateful the crash didn’t happen during rush hour. We’re glad there was a two-hour snow delay that morning. I had just taken the bus over the bridge the night before; if it had collapsed an hour later, my fiancé would have been making his morning commute. 

My first photo of the bridge disaster, taken the day of its collapse, Jan. 28, 2022. (Noelle Mateer/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Since then, my awe at having narrowly escaped disaster has transitioned to an awe at the process of rebuilding. There’s genuine inspiration to be found in seeing a pile of twisted metal go from dirt to Crucial Infrastructure. 

And it’s refreshing, really, to witness a local disaster so understandable. Bridge-building is the rare issue that is politically straightforward — fix our damn roads! Perhaps that simplicity, that straight line from Problem to Solution, is why President Joe Biden has come not once but twice. “I’m coming back to walk over this sucker,” he said in October, and I thought, “I’ve never related to this man more.”

Last week, I was riding the 61B when our bus driver hollered, “It’s almost done, folks!” as we rumbled past the construction site. “They’re saying next week.”

I watched the heads seated in front of me, all of different ages and races, as they turned left in unison, everyone peering out the windows together. I thought about how I might miss that ugly hole in the ground. How we East Enders wouldn’t have all this drama to talk about anymore. How this strange and funny chapter was about to close, and that one day I may even look back on it fondly. 

A sign along the running route for the Regent Square 5K reads “STRONGER THAN THE BRIDGE.” (Noelle Mateer/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I moved to Regent Square — and Pittsburgh in general — five months before the bridge collapsed. So for me Regent Square is Pittsburgh, and the bridge our central, unifying struggle. What will happen when the bridge ceases to be a spectacle? When it returns to its life as a normal functioning piece of infrastructure, something we ignore on our way from Point A to Point B — what then? Will we forget the awe we felt, watching it all come together? 

I started writing these thoughts down in my phone, as I commuted to the Pittsburgh Union Progress HQ. I thought I might title it “Ode to a Fallen Bridge” — something wistful and melancholy like that. 

Then it took me one hour and 15 minutes to get Downtown.

Welcome back, Fern Hollow Bridge. We missed you.

The bridge opened to traffic on Thursday afternoon, Dec. 22.

My dog, Bjorn, and I peek through the trees in Frick Park and see that the bridge spans all the way across. (Noelle Mateer/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Noelle is a business reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.

Noelle Mateer

Noelle is a business reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.