It's open: Sneakers, paws, stroller wheels create first traffic jam

Five years of toil, trouble, ingenuity give way to ‘once-in-a-lifetime event’

July 16, 2007 

They came and came and just kept coming. More than 50,000 people streamed onto the new Tacoma Narrows bridge Sunday, pushing baby strollers, snapping pictures and gazing up in awe at the massive cables and concrete towers.
Video - New Narrows Bridge Opening Celebration

“It is just amazing. Absolutely fantastic,” said Lisa Smith of Olympia, shepherding her two children across the span. “This is going to be a memory that stays with them the rest of their lives.”

The rush started at 8 a.m. when the first of more than 10,000 participants in a fun run burst onto the bridge from the Tacoma side.

At 10 a.m., when the bridge opened to the general public, people arrived so rapidly volunteer counters stationed at both ends could barely move their thumbs fast enough on their hand-held clickers. On the Tacoma side, an estimated 2,700 people crossed onto the bridge in just 15 minutes.

At the height of the day, the entire mile-long bridge deck was quivering perceptibly under all the human traffic.

Despite larger than expected crowds, the huge public event went remarkably smoothly.

“We’re very pleased,” said Lisa Murdock, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Transportation Department. “Everything went very well, given the enormity of this kind of thing.”

Two people were treated for heat stroke, Murdock said, one person turned an ankle, but other than that, there were no injuries.

The efficiency of the event echoed the five-year construction project itself, which ended under budget and was remarkably trouble-free.

The new suspension bridge has a main span of 2,800 feet, putting it in a tie with the old Narrows bridge for the fifth-longest in the United States.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, and a dozen other dignitaries showed up for a brief dedication ceremony at 1:30 p.m., but the speeches were mercifully short. When the ribbon symbolically opening the bridge was cut, the job was accomplished by 12 of the tradespeople who actually worked on the project – with an assist by the governor.

That’s the way the mastermind of the event, Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, wanted it. “This is a day for the people, not the politicians,” he said.

In keeping with that philosophy, MacDonald believed that anyone who wanted to should be able to cut a ribbon opening the new bridge. At several stations along the span, walkers could pick up a pair of scissors and cut a yellow plastic ribbon held up by WSDOT volunteers.

If they wanted to, they could take home a chunk, printed with the words: “I cut the ribbon at the new Tacoma Narrows bridge opening, July 2007.”

At approximately 4 p.m. crews began at the middle of the span and eased the remaining spectators off the bridge to prepare it for traffic.

Tacoma Narrows Constructors crews planned to work through the night to have the lane markers rearranged to send today’s commuter rush through the toll collection area and across the new bridge.

‘IT’S JUST PACKED’

Tacoma-side visitors got their first look at the spectacle as they walked down a path along the Jackson Street exit.

“You can’t believe how many people are here,” said one man, talking on his cell phone, his 3-year-old daughter in tow. “As you look over at the bridge it’s just packed.”

Another man, also reporting in on his cell phone, compared the crowd to one of Disneyland’s big attractions.

“It’s like waiting to get onto Space Mountain,” he said.

Desa Conniff was delighted.

It was only 10 a.m. and already her comments box was brimming with notes from people who wanted the two bridges lit all the time with twinkling lights.

Conniff was one of about 12 members of Narrowsbridgelights.org – a group pushing to install solar-powered lighting on the spans.

Jim Boardman of Vashon Island stopped by the group’s booth on the bridge’s Tacoma side to show his support. “It should be lit up for both beauty and safety,” he said. “Solar energy is absolutely the way to go. It’s a no-brainer.”

There were plenty of daddies pushing toddlers in strollers and a few toddlers pushing their dollies in strollers. There were dogs of every size and color, all sharing one feature – their tongues hanging out in the heat.

The most-envied visitors were probably the kids who had the foresight to wear shoes that transform into skates. They made the mile-long trek look easy, especially the downhill parts.

Hundreds of people couldn’t resist the urge to peer over the edge of the bridge, and who could blame them. A shimmering Puget Sound, a passing train, the underbelly of the existing bridge seen up close for the first time.

But Annette Holzworth of University Place could resist. Not a big fan of looking over the edge, Holzworth preferred to look off into the distance as she waited near the middle of the bridge for her relatives to show up.

“If I don’t do it now, it’ll never happen,” she said of walking the span.

Among the most photographed visitors were four members of Garrison Titan of the 501 Legion of Stormtroopers. The foursome – Darth Vader, Boba Fett and two white-clad intergalactic soldiers –were local members of an international costume group that honors the villains of the “Star Wars” movies.

“We get stopped a lot,” said Mark Semenchuk of Renton, who stands 6 feet 6 out of costume and another 4 inches taller when portraying Darth Vader.

Given their slow pace and the afternoon heat, the heavily garbed squad, sweating like visitors marooned on a desert planet, crossed the bridge once and figured they could make it back to the Tacoma side before departing for somewhere cooler than this slice of Earth.

He volunteered to help with the opening celebration, but little did David Wakeman know he’d play a part in making the day special for children and adults.

‘FUN TO BE PART OF HISTORY’

Wakeman, who works for the state Department of Transportation’s ferry repair center on Bainbridge Island, helped operate one of the bridge’s ribbon-cutting stops. He pulled on a yellow roll of tape, handed over scissors and watched photo op after photo op.

“It’s just luck of the draw,” said Wakeman of Poulsbo when asked how he got the job. He answered an e-mail at work looking for transportation employees to volunteer their time Sunday. He took two shifts.

“I was born and raised here, so I thought it’d be fun to be part of history,” he said.

Sergio Ibarra likes to people-watch, but he really went to the bridge because it’s part of history. Too bad he couldn’t convince his daughters of the same.

“They were too cool to come out for this,” said Ibarra, smiling.

The 47-year-old Gig Harbor man held an “I Walked the Bridge Passport,” which visitors could get stamped at designated stops along the bridge.

“I’ll put in a keepsake box, and my kids will discover it some day,” Ibarra said.

The new span celebrated its first traffic backup about 11 a.m., when authorities pushed the crowd back as bomb squad officials inspected a small green bag.

The crowd appeared to be in good spirits, however, and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor stood at the front of the line, talking to people.

As Rep. Dicks waited in a golf cart to get through, Pastor kidded the crowd after a Washington State Patrol trooper brought out a few folding chairs for people who needed to sit down.

“Now, the most expensive seats will be in the front,” Pastor said, drawing laughter. “Festival seating will be in the back. We’ve got hot dogs on the way.”

The bomb squad took away the package – a neglected camera case – in about five minutes and the party resumed.

All politicians – who aren’t in office anyway – promise to bring home the state money to fund transportation projects if you vote for them.

That was 65-year-old Bob Franks’ point as he walked the bridge, carrying a sign that read: “Toll Equity in Transportation Funds.”

Franks was protesting the lack of state money dedicated to the bridge, and the willingness of legislators to make dollars available for roads and bridges in other parts of the state.

Democrats? Republicans? Independents? Franks said he doesn’t care.

“I just want someone who’s going to get us equal representation,” he said.

With just an hour remaining before state crews began herding people off the bridge, visitors were still arriving.

Phillip Tiggs of Tacoma cut it a little close as he and his wife, Cheryl; their daughter, Kiki; and her friend, Shalayla Dillingham; strolled toward the bridge.

They’d planned on arriving sooner – “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Cheryl Tiggs pointed out – but they first were delayed waiting for some friends and before that attending church.

“You can’t give up spiritual food for walking,” Phillip Tiggs explained before they got back under way.

Greta Hixon of Tacoma walked the bridge, snipped a piece of yellow ribbon and snapped a few photos to send to her son, Army Staff Sgt. Jerrid Hixon, who’s serving in Iraq. The 24-year-old, who’s based at Fort Richardson in Alaska, is due home in December.

Greta Hixon told her son only that the bridge was slated to open soon, so the ribbon and photos will be a surprise.

“This isn’t an ordinary bridge,” she said. “I can’t wait for my son to come home and walk it himself.”

Staff writers Paul Sand and Randy McCarthy contributed to this report.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

Calling all readers

If you walked over the new Tacoma Narrows bridge Sunday, we’d like to hear about your experience. Please send your account to thenewstribune.com.

First they ran

Sunday’s ceremonies opened at 8 a.m. with 10,386 people taking part in a 5K run-walk from War Memorial Park over the new Tacoma Narrows bridge and back.

The event raised about $300,000 for Tacoma General Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, said Todd Kelley, spokesman for MultiCare Health System, organizer of the run-walk.

Results of the timed portion of the event will be posted at www.athleteslounge.com.

HOW TO GET A TRANSPONDER

There are five ways to sign up for a Good To Go transponder for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge or to learn more about it:

On the Net: www.wsdot.wa.gov/goodtogo

Phone: 1-866-936-8246

Fax: Send an application to 253-853-4235.

Mail: Applications can be mailed to PO Box 5050, Gig Harbor, WA 98335-5050.

In person: Customer service centers are located at 3212 50th St. Court, Suite 200, Gig Harbor, and 2115 S. 56th St., Suite 306, Tacoma. Employees will scan your transponder there to make sure it’s working.

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