Even though Galloping Gertie bucked her last with a newspaperman onboard 75 years ago this week, The News Tribune’s Leonard Coatsworth got scooped on the story before he even started crawling toward terra firma from the collapsing bridge.
A full day earlier and a dozen miles east, Carol A. Peacocke, a journalism student at Fife High School, took an assignment in her journalism class: write a spot-news announcement of the sort that would air on the radio programs that were common entertainment for the era.
Peacocke, who was a senior, might have misheard the assignment.
Two different phrasings of what she wrote appear in news accounts that circulated in newspapers as far off as New York and Miami. Both read more like headlines than the staccato declarations favored by 1940s radio news announcements:
Never miss a local story.
“Narrows bridge collapses,” one version has her writing. “Tacoma Narrows Bridge is torn down by storm,” the other says.
Whatever she wrote, it earned her fame.
She turned in the assignment on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1940, while Gertie was still intact, albeit a wild ride for motorists. The next day, in steady hard winds, the bridge fell into Puget Sound, almost exactly as she’d written.
“It kind of scared her,” said her son, Bill Hollywood. “She wrote the story without thinking anything about it. Then it happened.”
Shortly after Gertie galloped her last, word of Peacocke’s accurate prediction reached reporters. The newswires took it national, and attention found the Fife student.
“She got letters from all over the country, people wanting to marry her and all sorts of things” said 69-year-old Hollywood, who lives in Alaska.
One account says Peacocke’s journalism teacher graded the assignment a 62 for poor phrasing for a radio spot. It’s unclear whether the grade was issued before the imaginative writing came true, or whether her teacher, identified as a Miss June Dunning, re-evaluated it afterward.
Peacocke, who was 17 in 1940, seems to have endured the poor grade well. She moved to Alaska in the ’40s, raised a family, managed senior services for a series of communities and died in 2008 at age 85.
In an official citation, the Alaska Legislature commended her “energetic and hard-working” efforts to expand senior programs in Ketchican.
The unanimous legislative declaration, issued in March 1985, made no mention of her predictive abilities.