By Mary Boone
I was on the Narrows Bridge when it broke in the middle, and, although I get a certain satisfaction out of thrilling happenings, I hope that I never again go through such a nerve-racking experience.”
— Howie Clifford in The News Tribune, November 7, 1940
As a rookie reporter and photographer for the Tacoma Ledger (now The News Tribune), Howie Clifford ’34 had already covered murders, fires, and more than a few car wrecks.
“That was my job,” says Clifford.
But nothing could have prepared him for what would transpire on a Thursday morning 65 years ago, when copy editor Leonard Coatsworth called the paper to say the new Narrows Bridge was bouncing in the wind and had been closed to traffic. Coatsworth had been on the Peninsula shuttering his summer cottage and was forced to abandon his car and family dog, Tubby, mid-span.
The newspaper’s main photographer was out on another assignment, so Clifford’s editor handed him a camera and told him to get some photos but “absolutely run no risks.”
“Now, I remember them telling me to play it safe,” smiles Clifford. “But I’m not sure I remembered it that morning.”
Even prior to its July 1, 1940, opening, the bridge had been swaying and bouncing at times—that’s how it got the nickname Galloping Gertie—so Clifford knew “something big must be happening for Leonard to call.”
As Clifford and reporter Bert Brintnall hurried down Sixth Avenue toward the bridge, they passed a large billboard for Pacific National Bank that proclaimed it was “As Secure as the New Narrows Bridge.” Clifford made a note to get a photo of the billboard on their return downtown.
By the time Clifford arrived at the bridge he recalls it “had literally run amok, bouncing and twisting like a roller coaster.” Later reports indicate at 9:30 that morning—about the time Clifford got to the scene—the wind measured 42 miles per hour and the bridge was dancing in wave-like undulations two to five feet high.
“When I got there, I took a bunch of photos and then the bridge seemed to quiet down,” he says. “I knew Leonard’s dog was still in his car and I knew the dog, so I thought maybe I could get him to come with me.”
Around 10 a.m., Clifford ventured onto the center span, but his rescue attempt was thwarted by another gust of wind. The bridge began undulating. The twists grew until suddenly one side of the roadway was tilting as much as 28 feet above the other, then whipping back in the opposite direction.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone out there if it hadn’t been for the dog,” says Clifford. “Or, if I didn’t have the camera, I probably wouldn’t have gone out on the bridge at all. I got about 10 yards from the tower and stopped.”
Clifford looked into the viewfinder. He saw the center span buckle and then break apart.
“I pressed the camera trigger and started to run. I heard the bridge cracking and snapping behind me,” he says. The bridge rails weren’t very high, so Clifford tried to run up the yellow line in the center of the roadway.
“The bridge was moving faster than gravity, so it was slapping me around real good,” he says. “The pavement dropped out from under me and then bounced back and knocked me to my knees. That happened over and over, slamming me and the camera against the pavement.”
Clifford, a high school football player, says he tucked the camera under his arm and charged low toward the Tacoma shore.
“I was going as fast as I could, but because of the way the bridge was moving, I was half-running, half-crawling,” he says.
Clifford’s first-person account of the event ran in that day’s special edition of the Ledger: “In a few minutes, which seemed like hours, I was up with my fellow photographer, who had got a considerable start, and we both made our way to the toll gate office, exhausted, but oh so thankful.”
The consummate professional, Clifford was not pleased with the pictures he’d taken, so he hurried to a bluff to the right of the bridge and took one more shot as the entire section dropped into the Sound. Within hours he was transmitting photos of the collapse to media outlets around the world.
“It wasn’t until later that day that I realized my trousers were torn and my knees looked like hamburger,” says Clifford, who still speaks to school and civic organizations about the event. “The next day I looked even worse. I was black and blue from my feet to my hips.”
Clifford says witnessing the bridge collapse and barely escaping with his life remains one of the most memorable events in his very full life. The photojournalist went on to write eight books, most about his years living and traveling in Alaska. He also served as a U.S. Marine, and worked as a race-car driver, sports announcer, film producer, public relations manager, law officer, ski instructor, and commercial pilot.
And what of that bank billboard Clifford saw the morning of the collapse?
“We were going to stop on our way back to the office, but it had already been covered with plain white paper,” he recalls.
It was a photo Clifford never got to shoot.
Who was the last man on the bridge?
Newspapers at the time and accounts over the years have variously given the title “Last Man on the Bridge” to Ledger editor Leonard Coatsworth, photographers Howard Clifford and Barney Elliott, University of Washington engineering professor Frederick Farquharson, and University of Puget Sound student Winfield Brown.
Initially, Coatsworth was widely regarded as the last man, perhaps because newspapers across the country published a dramatic first-person account of his flight off the bridge. But historians and the Washington Department of Transportation believe they have unraveled the mystery.
Says the DOT’s Web site: “Actually, in their departures from the bridge, Brown outran Coatsworth. Coatsworth was already back safely when Clifford sprinted past Elliot. Farquharson stayed after Elliot straggled to the safety of the toll plaza. Farquharson, driven by the desire to record for engineering science the fate of the failing bridge, was the last man on Galloping Gertie.”
The bridge, through time
Nov. 25, 1938: Construction begins on the $6.4 million Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
July 1, 1940: The Narrows bridge opens with considerable fanfare. At a total length of 5,939 feet, it is the third-longest suspension bridge in the world.
Nov. 7, 1940: During the first wind storm of the season, the 2,800-foot center section of the bridge—known as “Galloping Gertie”—collapses. The event immediately is labeled “the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history.” The bridge, which was insured with 22 different policies, was declared a total loss; 80 percent of the structure’s value was covered by the insurance.
June 1948: Construction begins on a $16 million replacement bridge.
Oct. 14, 1950: The current Tacoma Narrows Bridge—now called “Sturdy Gertie”—opens. Tolls are 50 cents for car and driver one-way; 10 cents per passenger.
Aug. 31, 1992: The sunken remains of the 1940 Narrows Bridge are placed on the National Register of Historic Places to protect them from salvagers. It was the first register nomination ever to use sonar imagery.
Sept 25, 2002: Construction begins on an $849 million bridge to supplement the existing one. It will carry three 12 foot traffic lanes, two 10 foot shoulders, and a 10 foot bicycle/pedestrian path.
Early 2007: The new Tacoma Narrows Bridge is expected to open. Initially, eastbound travelers will be charged a $3 round-trip toll. The toll will be removed once the cost of the bridge is paid.
Source: Washington State Department of Transportation