Tacoma Bridge Collapses (11-7-40)

The Pittsburgh Press (November 8, 1940)

Tacoma, Wash., Nov. 8 –


The Washington Toll Bridge Authority today proceed with plans to rebuild the four-month-old $6,400,000 Tacoma Bridges Suspension Bridge, the debris of which rested lying in the mud in the bottom of Puget Sound.

The bridge, third longest suspension span in the world, was whipped to pieces yesterday in a 35-mile wind. It linked the Pacific Northwest’s three major defense units – Fort Lewis and McChord Field near Tacoma, and the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton. Hastily reconditioned ferries were put into service today between Point Defiance and Gig Harbor.

While bridge experts argued about what had caused the span to disintegrate, engineered at the University of Washington tinkered with a $14,500 model to eliminate the “bugs” from the new one.

Charles E. Andrew, former assistant chief engineer on the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, who built the Tacoma Narrows Span, said he originally had planned for open truss construction, which would offer less wind resistance. Another engineer, he said, has substituted flat girders.

Another theory was that the wind against the side of the structure had caused it to vibrate as a paper vibrates when the edge is blown. Still another suggestion was that the bridge had collapsed under harmonic motion set up by the wind.

The bridge began to sway like a porch swing yesterday. Two trucks and an auto were plunged into the Sound when the bridge gave way. The lone casualty was a cocker spaniel owned by Leonard Coatsworth, who jumped from his careening auto and crawled 500 feet on his hands and knees to safety.

Patrick Henry Wilson, executive secretary of the bridge authority, said that full insurance reconstruction.

Reporter Marooned

The only casualty was a dog, which plunged into the Sound with the auto of his master, Leonard Coatsworth, marooned on the “galloping” arch, began stumbling toward shore as 100 feet of concrete buckled in the center of the bridge.

More and more of it snapped and fell as Mr. Coatsworth, on hands and knees, scrambled to safety.

In a story copyrighted by the Tacoma News-Tribune, Mr. Coatsworth wrote:

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 experience in France did I experience the feeling of helpless horror that gripped me when I was trapped in 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 has ever seen before. This, however, was the only difference I saw from other times when a string breeze was blowing.

Something Terribly Wrong

I started across. In the car with me was my daughter’s cocker spaniel, Tubby. Not until I realized 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 saw 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.

Loses Control of Car

Before I realized it, the tilt from side to side became so violent I lost control of the car. I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb. I tried to stand and was thrown again. Around me I could hear the entire character.

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 of 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 a other man, alternately crawling and then running a few steps in a crouched position.

Knees Raw and Bleeding

My breath was coming in gasps, my knees were raw and bleeding, 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 torturous progress.

Toward the last I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time. The man on the other side gained the towers before I did and I envied his better endurance.

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.

Bridge Collapse Movies Taken

Professor F. B. Farquharson of the University Engineering Department took motion pictures of the collapse. Equipped with two cameras, Professor Farquharson had been filming the normal sway of the bridge to aid in his study of the “ripple.”

About a half-hour after I arrived, it started a lateral twisting motion in addition to its vertical waves. It had never done that before. At least six lampposts were snapped off while I watched.

A few minutes later I saw a side girder bulge out, but though the bridge was bucking up at an angle of 45 degrees, I thought she would be able to fight it out. But that wasn’t to be.

Looking toward the Gig Harbor (west) end, I saw the suspenders (vertical cables) snap off and a whole section caved in.

The bridge dropped from under me. I fell and broke one of my cameras. The portion where I was had dropped 30 feet when the tension was released.

Kneeling on the buckling structure, Professor Farquharson “stayed to complete the picture.”

He said an examination of the films might aid in determining the cause of the failure.

Footage of the collapse.

British Pathé newsreel.

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That poor dog never stood a chance…

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