Special Reports

1949 quake sent saddle to bottom of Narrows

The timing couldn't have been much worse.

Shortly before noon on April 13, 1949, just as workers building the current Tacoma Narrows Bridge hoisted a 21-ton cable saddle to the top of the east tower, the worst earthquake in recorded history hit the South Sound.

The 7.1 earthquake, centered just a few miles south, made the bridge towers sway back and forth like treetops in the wind,

"When that earthquake hit, the saddle wasn't fastened down in any way. It was just sitting up there on top of the tower," remembered Bill Matheny, an ironworker who helped build the bridge. "As the tower swayed back and forth, that saddle started moving."

Phil Orlando, an ironworker and local tavern owner, was alone on top of the tower, 507 feet above the water, giving instructions to the crane operator hoisting the saddle to the top.

The saddle came right at Orlando, forcing him to scramble over the top of it to avoid being swept off the tower. When the swaying tower reversed direction, the saddle paused, then headed back toward Orlando from the opposite direction.

"He had to go over the top of it again," said Earl White, another ironworker who worked on the bridge. "He was a big man, but when you're scared you forget about the weight."

That time, the centrifugal force launched the saddle off the top of the tower. It rocketed downward and scored a direct hit on a work barge anchored next to the tower.

The barge sank, scattering equipment. Miraculously, no one was killed. Two men were slightly injured.

After searching for three days, divers found the saddle in a hole on the bottom of the Narrows, 140 feet beneath the surface. They fastened a line to it, and a crane hauled it to the surface.

The saddle appeared not much worse for the wear, according to reports filed by the construction supervisor. One corner of the base was bent, but workers straightened it. Ten days later, the saddle was securely bolted down on top of the tower, where it sits to this day.

Orlando was severely shaken by his close call, White remembers.

"As soon as the earthquake was over, he went down and got his paycheck, and he never came back," White said.

John Morgan, a technician on the bridge maintenance crew, says the saddle also bears marks from the ordeal.

That saddle tends to corrode faster than its twin on the opposite side of the tower, Morgan says.

"It's not extreme or anything," he said, "but you see a little more peeled paint there."

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693


On the Net

www.tribnet.com/ projects: Learn more about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and its predecessor, Galloping Gertie.