Special Reports

Handshakes, hugs as builder launches huge bridge piece

When the massive foundation for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge glided off the launch ramp and onto Puget Sound on Monday, Manuel Rondon gave Linea Laird a congratulatory bear hug so enthusiastic her hard hat fell off.

Rondon, project manager of Tacoma Narrows Constructors, the private company building the bridge, and Laird, his counterpart at the state Department of Transportation, agreed the moment was historic.

"This is an important milestone," Rondon said. "There's quite a difference when you see it on paper and when you see the real thing."

And, Rondon added, "It's the beginning of a long-term commitment to finish this job on time."

Completion of the giant structure, called a cutting edge, takes the $849 million bridge project out of a long, difficult planning process and into the construction phase.

The cutting edge, the first of two such structures fabricated at Todd Pacific Shipyards, left Seattle under tow Monday afternoon and was to arrive at the Port of Tacoma this morning.

At the launch, Laird and Judy Poloai, a welder at Todd for 25 years, shared space on top of a small wooden platform. Together, they sent a bottle of champagne crashing into the steel wall of the 131-by-81-by-18-foot structure.

"On behalf of the people of the state of Washington," Laird said, "we christen thee Caisson K1."

The cutting edge will become the bottom of the caisson, or foundation, supporting the 510-foot tower on the Gig Harbor side of the bridge.

About 50 people, including top officials of the Transportation Department, TNC and Todd gathered on the launch ramp for the occasion.

They stood in the predawn darkness, all wearing hard hats and safety glasses, as the giant structure inched silently down the ramp. It moved almost imperceptibly at first, then gradually picked up speed and made a graceful entry into the water, so smoothly it barely made a ripple.

When the big box was waterborne, spectators applauded and shook hands.

The cutting edge will spend the next three months at the Port's Terminal 7 on the Sitcom Waterway, where TNC crews will fill its hollow steel walls with concrete and top it with an additional 60 feet of steel concrete forms.

Terminal 7, normally used for loading and unloading noncontainerized cargo, is clearly visible from the observation tower at the port's administrative offices at One Sitcum Plaza.

After the launch, Rondon summarized high points of bridge construction over the course of the summer and fall:

•In April, fabrication of the second cutting edge will be completed. It also will be towed to the Port of Tacoma for outfitting.

•In mid- to late June, the first cutting edge will have been outfitted with additional steel forms and towed to the bridge site. The second cutting edge will follow about a month later.

•From now through June, TNC crews will install 64 anchors in the floor of the Narrows to hold the caissons in place as they are constructed.

•In the meantime, roadway work will continue on the Gig Harbor side of the bridge, including a new freeway bridge at 24th Street, which will open to traffic at the end of September.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693