Tacoma's Titanic: A run for his life

Howard Clifford vividly remembers the collapse of Galloping Gertie, because it nearly killed him

August 10, 2003 

Wires snake from what remained after the 1940 collapse of Galloping Gertie, the 1st Narrows bridge.

THE NEWS TRIBUNE FILE

If it hadn't been for the dog, Howard Clifford never would have ventured onto Galloping Gertie that November morning.

But the dog's owner, Leonard Coatsworth, was a good friend, and Clifford considered his dog, Tubby, a friend, too.

"He knew me and liked me - as well as he liked the people that owned him," Clifford said of the cocker spaniel. "I thought he would come to me. The thing that really spurred me on was to see if I could get the dog out."

Clifford, who turned 91 this year, has the dubious distinction of having been the last man on the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

He was there, watching through the viewfinder of his camera, when the center span broke and forced him to run for his life.

These days, Clifford lives in Normandy Park, near Sea-Tac Airport, in a modest home he shares with his husky dog, Scooter, and his cat, Chewy.

Inside, the walls are lined with shelves crammed with books, mostly Pacific Northwest and Alaska history - of which Clifford is now a part.

In addition to spending 20 years in the newspaper business, Clifford worked as a commercial airplane pilot, a sports commentator, a ski instructor, a public relations man, a race car driver and a Marine. In his spare time, he's written eight books, most of them about Alaska history.

Even with all those memories, Clifford says he remembers the day Galloping Gertie fell as if it were yesterday.

"I remember everything about it," he said.

Clifford and his friend, Coatsworth, worked for The Tacoma News Tribune in 1940. Coatsworth was a copy editor. Clifford did whatever needed doing. He laid out pages, wrote sports stories, put together the women's section and took pictures when the other photographer was busy.

That was the case the day Gertie fell.

"They couldn't get a hold of the regular photographer," he recalled. "I was told to grab the secondary camera and go out there and see what was what."

Coatsworth had driven onto the bridge and been trapped. He decided to run for it but couldn't convince his frantic pet to come with him.

Tubby stayed in the car as it slid back and forth across the lanes, bashing into the guardrails.

Clifford remembers that, in the midst of the storm that doomed the bridge, the wind suddenly let up a bit. He took the opportunity to attempt Tubby's rescue, carrying with him the newspaper's camera, a big Graflex you hold against your chest and look down into to focus.

"If the dog wasn't there, I probably wouldn't have gone," he said. "Or if I didn't have a camera I wouldn't have gone. It was a combination of the two.

"I got about 10 yards from the tower and I kind of looked down into the camera. It almost framed it - the car, the bridge beyond it and the tower."

As he watched, the car, with Tubby inside, fell 200 feet into the Narrows.

Clifford's thoughts went instantly from the dog to his own survival.

"When it dropped like that, I turned and started running back to shore," Clifford said. "I didn't know if I was going to live or not, but I was going to give it a try.

"The bridge was twisting and it was bouncing because the center section was gone," he said. "It was moving faster than gravity. I would be running and the bridge would drop out from under me. Then it would come up and hit me as I was still coming down."

His pants torn, knees bleeding, Clifford at last made it it to shore.

The memory has never faded, he said.

"I can still feel myself running off the bridge," he said. "I still wake up once in a while at night and have reactions to it as if it happened yesterday or the day before.

"I still imagine myself running in the air."

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