Together we trekked up the skinny sidewalk on the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge, stepping out at the first tower and down 16 flights of temporary steel stairs all the way to the water line.
We crossed a plank laid from the tower base, over open water to the tower base of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge, which was still under construction then in October 2006.
We rode a construction elevator up the outside of the new tower. At the top, the three News Tribune editors, plus reporter Rob Carson, caught our breath. This news-gathering field-trip was one of a handful I made over the years with Carson, and a memory that makes me smile as I contemplate his retirement later this month.
The concrete top of the bridge tower felt surprisingly large and secure. We walked around, took in the view and had our pictures taken.
Shortly, however, we were back into learning mode as bridge engineers unleashed another round of numbers and physics lessons explaining how they were building this suspension bridge. We looked down the lengths of dangling cable that eventually would hold up the roadbed. For now, below us there was only water.
Then it was time to go down, not down the elevator, but down a catwalk made of what looked a lot like chicken wire. It was strung beneath the gigantic cable itself that stretched all the way back to the shoreline. The catwalk bounced with every step. Looking down gave you too obvious a glimpse of how little there was between you and a 500-foot plunge into the swirling water.
So I didn’t look down. I looked at Carson’s back. Actually, I fixated on it and planted one foot in front of the other.
Carson was a guy I could trust to get us down steadily and safely. An occasional soft word of encouragement or glance back from him was enough to keep me moving.
In a few minutes, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the exhilarating march down to the ground.
Field-trips are fun (and educational) for editors, but pity the reporter who has a carload of editors along for the ride. Each comes back with an idea about what the story should be. Editors have trouble picking a singular focus. We generally want it all.
Carson would sit though a post field-trip brainstorming session, nodding and smiling, all the while knowing he had it all figured out. On our better days, we simply trusted him. He’d go off with his notebooks and come back with a focused story that made the complex simple and made you want to keep reading.
He did it for five years covering the Narrows bridge construction. He did it with climate change on Mount Rainier. He did it on stories as diverse as the military and local tribes.
“The thing about Carson is how well he could sort through an avalanche of information on some big subject,” said his editor, Randy McCarthy, “and then write a story that did justice to the complexities but was easy to understand.
“Experts could explain, editors could advise, but Carson was the guy who had to write the story. And he always found it so the rest of us learned what we needed or wanted to know without getting lost in the details.”
Carson started with the TNT in 1987, working from our Seattle bureau, then joining our special projects team. He went on to cover several beats and to serve as a general assignment writer.
His series on physician-assisted suicide made him a Pulitzer finalist in 1992. He wrote books on Mount St. Helens and on the Narrows bridge. He told TNT stories from Germany, the Netherlands, Korea, China, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Mexico and Somalia. He won regional and national journalism awards.
Mostly, I will remember him as the guy we trusted when the going was complicated, whether leading us physically down from the top of the Narrows bridge or through a thicket of information collected on the way to telling an important story.
We’ll publish his final major piece next Sunday as Carson walks us back through the history of Chambers Bay, from gravel pit to golf course, on the eve of its hosting of the U.S. Open.
We will miss him and his writing greatly.
Our new general assignment reporter, Derrick Nunnally, is already on board. He comes to us after working recently on the Associated Press state legislative team. Before that, he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Advocate in Baton Rouge and the Anniston Star in Alabama.
A former editor describes him as “a throwback newsroom character in the best sense,” a good writer who can build a web of sources on any beat.
You’ll see more of his stories soon.