Watching a bridge die — and nearly going with it

Photos taken from film shot on the deck of Galloping Gertie show her rocking back and forth.
Photos taken from film shot on the deck of Galloping Gertie show her rocking back and forth. University of Washington Libraries

Editor’s note: Leonard Coatsworth, a copy editor at The News Tribune, was one of the last people on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge before it was torn to pieces. This is his first-person account of his ordeal.

I saw the Narrows Bridge die today, and only by the grace of God escaped dying with it.

I have been near death many times in my life, but not even in my worst experiences in France did I experience the feeling of helpless horror that gripped me when I was trapped on the bridge this morning.

Before starting over the bridge I had driven underneath the approach to watch the motion. The undulations were more rapid than I had ever seen before. This, however, was the only difference I saw from other times when a strong breeze was blowing.

I drove on the bridge and started across. In the car with me was my daughter's cocker spaniel, Tubby. The car was loaded with equipment from my beach home at Arletta. Not until I reached the first towers did I realize something was terribly wrong.

Either just as I reached the towers or just as I drove past them, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. This was something new in my experience with the bridge. Heretofore, the noticeable motion has been up and down and undulating.

Before I realized it, the tilt from side to side became so violent I lost control of the car and thought for a moment it would leap the high curb and plunge across the sidewalk of the bridge and into the railing.

I jammed on the brakes and got out of the car, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb. I tried to stand and was thrown again. Around me I could hear the concrete cracking.

I started back to the car to get the dog, but was thrown before I could reach it. The car itself began to slide from side to side on the roadway. I decided the bridge was breaking up and my only hope was to get back to shore.

On hands and knees most of the time I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers. Across the roadway from me I became aware of another man, apparently crawling and then running a few steps in a crouched position.

My breath was coming in gasps, my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb. But I was spurred by the thought that if I could reach the towers I would be safe.

Finally, my breath gave out completely and I lay in the roadway clutching the curb until I could breathe again, and then resumed my tortuous progress.

Those who stood on the shore and watched the bridge in its death agony still have no conception of the violence of the movement felt by one out beyond the towers. Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.

I saw Clark Eldridge (Toll Bridge Authority engineer), his face white as paper. If I feel badly, I thought, how must he feel?

And always through the back of my mind ran the thought: Why did I not save my dog? But I know I would have lost him on the way in.

With real tragedy, disaster and blasted dreams all around me, I believe that right at this minute what appalls me most is that within a few hours I must tell my daughter that her dog is dead, when I might have saved him.

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