Metro

As bridge closed, a long night led to purgatory

Many of them didn’t have time to pack their underwear.

The residents of Joelyn’s Family Home were sitting for a meal of beef and broccoli Wednesday afternoon when a police officer burst into the newly renovated shelter on Long Island with bad news.

“Don’t be alarmed, but we need you to get off the island,” the officer told the homeless women and the staff.

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Some of the women, there for several months to recover from drug addictions, feared there had been a terrorist attack. They had no idea where they were going or what would become of them and their few possessions: pictures of their children, vital documents, medication, jewelry, bedding, their favorite jeans.

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The women panicked, and tears flowed as word spread that the old, rickety bridge from the mainland to their shelter in Boston Harbor had been condemned. All they knew was that they had to move quickly and leave behind anything they could not carry in a small bag.

They didn’t know when, if ever, they would be allowed to return to their refuge.

Mindy Miller, a senior counselor at the home, was sitting in her office when a friend called and asked if the rumors about the bridge were true. Moments later, the director came in and told her what the officer had said. They needed to convene a staff meeting immediately and conferred with other administrators of Victory Programs, their parent organization in Boston, which had recently spent $2 million on renovations.

A wave of fear swelled as she realized what was happening.

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Miller assembled the 28 women in the shelter — six others were off the island — and explained what she could.

“OK, girls, we have to evacuate,” she recalls telling them. “We need to do this as soon as possible. We don’t know where everyone is going tonight. But you’ll all be safe.”

Please stay calm, she urged, though it was hard for her to follow her own advice.

Miller and the other staff members could not believe the closure of the bridge had come so suddenly, and they were annoyed the police had not shared the news with them privately. They were galled that there was no advance planning and that they would have to figure out where to take the women as they evacuated.

During two chaotic hours, they took what they could, and staff ushered them onto the program’s two large passenger vans.

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As one van rolled toward the rusted span, Miller recalled later, the anxiety surged.

‘This has put our entire agency in a devastating, catastrophic financial crisis.’

Jonathan Scott, chief executive of Victory Programs 

“Are we safe?” a woman asked in the back seat.

Another responded: “I don’t want to go over the bridge.”

Yet another said: “I hope we don’t fall in the water.”

After Miller’s van crossed a portion of the 3,000-foot, two-lane bridge, she sought to allay their fears. “Don’t worry, girls, we just passed the part of the bridge they’re worried about,” she said. “We’re going to be safe.”

The entire bridge was unsafe, she knew, but her words helped calm their nerves and got them across without any panic attacks.

About a half mile later, Miller’s van parked in a large lot on Moon Island, where for years MBTA buses have brought more than 400 people every day to the island’s large emergency homeless shelter.

It was about 7 p.m. The lot was dark and filled with hundreds of people from the emergency shelter, Miller recalled, as well as from many of the other recovery programs on the island. There were people crying, knowing that they would be separated from friends and staff. Some complained that it was like they were being evicted all over again.

Staff, too, were consoling each other, many of them expecting they were now probably out of a job.

Miller called her director, who was still with the other van on the island. “This isn’t going to work,” she recalls telling her. “There are too many people here.”

So they decided to meet in another lot near the Quincy T Station, where the six women who had been off the island met them.

Staff members at their Boston headquarters were furiously searching for places where the women could stay.

When they finally devised a plan, Miller and her colleagues asked the women, who ranged in age from 20 to 60, to stand in three different parking spaces in the lot, based on where they would be going.

Ten found spare beds or couches with friends or family; 17 would be sent to homes run by Victory Programs in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain, and eight were going to a hotel in Randolph.

The women headed to the hotel were particularly nervous, because some had to be at jobs in the morning and others had to be at early appointments at a methadone clinic in Boston.

Miller said she went with the women to the hotel, where they squeezed into five rooms. She gathered them in one room and leveled with them.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she recalled telling them.

But the women were among the island’s luckier residents, because their agency had vowed to find spaces for them.

On Friday, Jonathan Scott, the chief executive of Victory Programs, said all the women were sent to other homes within the agency and the staff were able to collect some of their belongings on the island.

But he was still fuming.

“We were never given any indication that something like this was about to happen,” he said. “This has put our entire agency in a devastating, catastrophic financial crisis.”

“I’ve never seen anything this ridiculous,” he said. “I’m still jumping out of my skin.”

In an interview Friday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the rush to move the people off the island could not be avoided.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We found out that the bridge was structurally unsafe. I wasn’t going to risk keeping people on the island. . . . I couldn’t afford to have somebody driving over the bridge and have the bridge collapse.”

Scott said he hoped the women could move back to Long Island soon, but he knew that was unlikely and that it may never happen.

More coverage:

Harbor bridge closing brings hunt for new shelters, services

Long Island Bridge closure forces evacuation of hundreds

Editorial: Long Island span closes: A bridge to somewhere?

More from today’s paper:

Mayor Walsh vows to fix Long Island Bridge

A refuge for those who have little disappears in two hours of chaos

Governor Patrick’s energy policies faulted

Legal analysts divided on marijuana defense for Robel Phillipos

Back to the old Garden: A slice of history in Topsfield

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.