Editor’s note: Howard Clifford, a photographer for The News Tribune in 1940, was the last person off the Tacoma Narrows bridge before it collapsed. He wrote this account in 1990 on the 50th anniversary of the disaster.
“The Narrows Bridge is falling down!”
The excited shout from the city editor alerted the few staff members in the city room of The News Tribune midmorning on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 1940.
A call had come from Leonard Coatsworth, a copy desk editor on his day off, who was en route to his summer home at Arletta, across the Narrows from Tacoma.
Coatsworth had not been able to drive across the bridge due to the severe wave-like motions brought about by high winds in the Narrows.
The waves were just that. One could be driving across the bridge, and another vehicle some yards ahead would sudden disappear in a valley between “waves” and then reappear as it rose to the crest again.
It earned the bridge, which had been completed and dedicated just a few months earlier, the nickname of “Galloping Gertie.”
But the wave motions encountered by Coatsworth were apparently more violent than usual, as he had driven across the bridge twice daily during the late summer months without trouble.
Coatsworth’s car was 30 to 40 yards past the east tower when he was forced to abandon it and make his way back to the toll plaza to alert the city desk by phone.
He had attempted, without success, to get the family cocker spaniel out of the car, and in its fright it attempted to bite him.
Following Coatsworth’s call, I was assigned as a photographer to the fast-developing story, and Bert Brintnal, a veteran reporter, accompanied me.
En route, we noted a large billboard advertising a local savings and loan with the slogan “Safe as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.” We made a mental note to take a photo of it on our way back.
At the time of our arrival, the bridge was not only going through the wave-like motions; it also had developed a twist.
The bridge was constructed without vents or gratings in the roadway. The steel structural “skirts” on the sides formed an inverted “U,” catching the winds underneath, which were then dumped as one side of the bridge lifted. It then dropped and twisted the other way, picking up another “load” of air.
After a while the motion seemed to taper off, and Bert and I decided that possibly we could rescue the dog, which knew us both from visits to the Coatsworth summer home. It also was a good excuse to get out on the bridge, which had been closed.
As we neared the east tower, I continued to take photos. It was then that I heard what sounded like rifle shots — first one or two at a time and then in more rapid sequence.
I did not realize at first the sound was that of the snapping support cables in the center section of the bridge. As they broke, they snapped and lashed about like a whip.
Suddenly the center section of the ridge gave a mighty heave and peeled back as it fell into the waters below.
At the same time the east section started bouncing up and down as the main support cables, relieved of the weight of the center section, appeared to stretch and retract.
Fearing that the east section might also fall, Bert and I turned and ran for the toll plaza. Bert had about a 20-yard start on me and being rather long-legged did not seem to have the trouble running that I did.
I was also burdened with the camera, which I hung onto determinedly, realizing that if I lost it, I would also lose all of my photos of the bridge’s demise.
I attempted to keep to the center line of the roadway, afraid that I might be tossed over the sidewalk rail from the bridge’s action. The roadway was bouncing up and down, falling beneath me and literally leaving me running in air. It would then bounce back, forcing me to my knees.
I continued for what seemed like ages, but probably was only a couple of minutes and finally reached stable ground. Bert was waiting there for me, leaving me to be the last person off the bridge.
He then phoned the city desk, giving them a brief outline of the falling of the bridge and advising them that we were on the way in with the story and photos. He had completed the call by the time I had the car back on the roadway.
It was then that I noted for the first time my trousers were torn and both knees scraped and bloodied from my falling to the concrete roadway.
We arrived back a the newspaper office without incident, but noted that the savings and loan billboard had been papered over, covering up the bank’s name and slogan.
Coatsworth also had returned to the office, and had written his story before going home to a well-earned rest.
The photos were published, along with the one taken by Jim Bashford, a former Tacoma Ledger photographer who had retired and was freelancing from his own studio at the time. All were wirephotoed to the far corners of the world.
I did not really become aware of the battering I had taken until the next morning when I tried to get out of bed. My feet were blistered, and I was black and blue from my feet to my hips. Needless to say, I was very sore.
Although the falling of the Narrows Bridge happened a half century ago, it is still just as vivid in my memory today as it was back in 1940. It is an experience I will never forget.