(This story was originally published 2/20/07.) At first glance, the rubble doesn’t look like much: chunks of old concrete, rusted rebar fingers poking out of the sides.
Nothing worth a second look, until you realize where you’re standing. The western end of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge looms overhead, giant-legged, soaring over the water. Beneath it, salty green ripples sway toward the shore.
Look west again at the broken slabs, half-buried in sand and gravel. Look halfway up the hillside, toward Gig Harbor, and something else catches the eye: a rusted section of steel girder, lurking in the underbrush.
Realization dawns. These remnants are relics – forgotten dross from one of the greatest disasters in the history of engineering: Galloping Gertie, the bridge that danced and died.
A state archaeologist and a transportation historian looked at the rubble last week – though they couldn’t prove it for certain, they believed they were looking at Gertie’s 67-year-old bones.
“They don’t use this kind of square rebar anymore,” said Matthew Sterner, transportation archaeologist with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. “Environmental conditions here suggest this has been here the appropriate amount of time.”
Looking up at the current bridge towers, Sterner let his guesses go further. Once Gertie was gone, the dangling remains had to be demolished.
“They did deconstruction so they could upgrade,” he said.
Craig Holstine, historian and cultural resources specialist for the DOT, and author of a book on Narrows Bridge history, was inclined to think the same thing. His guess: The fragments of concrete and steel on the shore were left behind by workers who built the current Narrows bridge, Gertie’s replacement.
Twisting madly in the wind, Gertie’s buckling bridge deck collapsed into the Narrows on Nov. 7, 1940, creating a celebrated underwater ruin of concrete and girders, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s unlikely that the bits and pieces on the western shore come from the ruin, Sterner and Holstine said. When archaeologists first learned of the find, the rumor mill began to turn – was it possible that workers building the new bridge had dislodged portions of the underwater remains and dumped them on the shore?
One of Gertie’s lovers thought it was possible. Robert Mester, a local diver who has recorded the bridge ruins in photos and video, was a primary figure in the effort to gain national historic protection for the site. He estimates he has dived to Gertie’s grave more than 300 times.
“There’s nobody that has more knowledge of the ruin in its original location than I,” he said last week. “I have 20 years of videotapes, underwater photographs, drawings.”
Mester accepts the possibility that the shoreline fragments are nothing more than overlooked leftovers. But he also believes the state has downplayed the extent of damage done underwater during construction of the new bridge.
He first raised concerns in 2003, describing the site as “devastated” by new rock and anchor chains. He says photos taken in 2005 showed more corruption by Tacoma Narrows Constructors, the DOT’s private partner.
“They’ll do irreparable damage, totally destroying it, like cracking an egg,” Mester said. “If you were to recover the Holy Grail from underwater, you would be responsible for curating it.”
The degree of underwater damage can’t be measured yet. Though bridge construction is in its last stages, diving at the site is restricted. Public records show construction has caused some damage to the site, forcing a series of revised agreements and mitigation.
Though it sounds fancy and official, the historic designation offers little protection. Gertie’s ruins are listed as a historic site at the federal level, the state level, the county level and city level, but the listings don’t stop construction on state-owned property.
NO DOUBT THAT HARM DONE
Before construction began in 1999, state and federal transportation officials predicted construction wouldn’t harm Gertie, and signed a memorandum of agreement to that effect. The agreement included a requirement for an “Unanticipated Discovery Plan” that would explain how to spot archaeological remains and protect them.
In 2003, transportation officials acknowledged the ruins had been damaged. Negotiations for a new memorandum of agreement began. In fall 2006, the revised agreement was signed.
The DOT accepted mitigation measures that included contributions to a bridge exhibit for the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society and Museum. The DOT also agreed to pay for a high-resolution side-scan sonar survey of the ruins.
Sterner, the state archaeologist, said there is no question construction has harmed Gertie’s ruins. He suggests DOT and TNC skirted requirements to notify the state’s historic preservation office until after the damage was done.
“They impacted a national register-listed site,” he said.
DOT and its construction partner strongly disagree that they delayed notification. They cite correspondence with the state’s historic preservation office dating to 2003, showing that the state was told about construction anchor cables crossing the ruins. A July 28, 2003, letter from a state historic preservation officer acknowledged notification and thanked DOT for providing it.
The new memorandum of agreement added a requirement for monthly monitoring of construction activity near the ruins, and reports that described any damage. Reports from September 2006 to January 2007 list only one incident – a broken cable that might have snapped in a confrontation with a 1940s-era concrete block.
The report, signed by Jeff Carpenter, the DOT’s chief engineer on the new bridge project, said all the cable was recovered, and the incident occurred outside the boundary of the historic ruins.
How did he know he got all the cable?
“You know the length of the cable in that case,” Carpenter said. “We knew there was no impact.”
‘REASONABLE standard of CARE’
Carpenter said the state is doing all it can to protect the ruins. He believes TNC has taken the responsibility of preservation seriously.
“I think they’ve done just fine,” he said. “I do. I think we used reasonable standard of care here.”
Carpenter and bridge workers have known about the hillside fragments for several years. He said he was the one who pointed it out to Sterner and local preservationists, who were discussing possible salvage of a section of Gertie for a museum exhibit.
“The state historical museum was looking to salvage a piece of deck,” he said. “I do happen to know that there’s some, for lack of a better word, debris on the Gig Harbor shoreline. My guess is they demolished the remains of the Gertie deck, and that was a handy storage site for debris.
“If (preservationists want) a piece, we’d be willing to work with them.”