Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bridge of bragging rights

Praise the bridge that carried you over. -- George Colman

I was high today. High on my new job, and high on the top of a bridge that most people have only seen from the ground level. I got a personal tour of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which included riding a tiny elevator up a tower and climbing three ladders to reach the top at 510 feet. My ultimate destination was a small rectangle of cement where the only color was a red flashing light that warns passing planes to keep their distance and the mint green main cables that extend down the mile-long suspension bridge connecting Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula.

I had envisioned whipping winds and chilly temperatures but there was nothing more than a thin white mist that hid portions of the nearby homes and lent Mount Rainier an air of mystery. I could see for miles, from Mount Hood in northern Oregon to Mount Ellinor in the Olympics.

The new bridge opened in 2007 (today is its third anniversary) to ease traffic congestion and cut down on the number of collisions that further bottlenecked the bridge. It may be more modern than its infamous twin but the experience was titillating nonetheless. To the right is the tower that I stood on for more than an hour today, marveling at the abilities of man.

The Narrows is sometimes called "Galloping Gertie" because the original bridge collapsed in November 1940, four months after it opened to the fanfare of being the third largest bridge of its kind at the time. Forty mile winds twisted and turned the swaying bridge until large chunks broke apart and sank in the Sound. Shockingly, the only victim was a cocker spaniel named Tubby who belonged to a copy editor at The News Tribune. (Watch the footage here.) It was another 10 years before they rebuilt the bridge.

My adventure started in a tiny metal box (also called an elevator) with three men crammed in alongside me. The ride, which lasted roughly two minutes, was cramped and the elevator continuously creaked and shook during the ascent. Its door swung open into an enclosed area of the bridge tower and I had to hoof it up a yellow bridge to another cement tunnel. There, a second ladder took me up onto a platform where my jaw literally dropped in amazement. The tower is made of 8,500 cubic yards concrete and 2.9 million pounds of reinforcing steel. It's massive. And I was standing on top of it.

I couldn't help leaning over the waist-high cement barrier to gaze below at the shimmering waters that I had already seen were full of jellyfish and tide pools. But as beautiful as the views were, I was captivated with the bridge and the engineering feat it must have been.

I was there to write a story about sure-footed men who harnessed themselves in and teetered on a 20-inch wide cable hundreds of feet above the water. They are tasked with repainting tons of bubbles that havesurfaced and draining water that has accumulated in the pairs of suspension cables. When I asked one guy why he did it, he said it was for the "Benjamins." I think I would do it just for the view, the thrill, the bragging rights...

Link to my story to follow once it is published.

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