“I’ve seen and done just about everything, it seems,” Howie
Clifford ’34 once told a reporter who was researching the
history of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. He wasn’t kidding.
Clifford was a prize-winning newspaper photojournalist, a
commercial airline pilot, a race-car driver, a sports announcer,
a film producer, a public relations manager and consultant,
a law officer, a U.S. Marine during World War II (serving in
the Pacific), a ski instructor, the inventor of a water-ski safety
binding, an editor, a publisher, and a writer of eight books,
mostly on Alaska travel and history. He photographed every
U.S. president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. But
his most talked-about adventure was the run for his life he
made on Nov. 7, 1940, when the first Narrows Bridge began
collapsing beneath his feet.
Clifford was a rookie photographer for
The Tacoma Ledger
The News Tribune
) when word came into the newsroom
that the brand-new bridge had been closed to traffic during
a windstorm, and it was undulating like a giant anaconda.
The newspaper’s principal 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,” Clifford
in 2005. “But I’m not sure I remembered it that
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.
Even prior to its July 1, 1940, opening, the bridge had been
swaying at times—that’s how it got the nickname Gallop-
ing Gertie—but by the time Clifford arrived, the bridge “was
bouncing and twisting like a roller coaster,” he recalled. Later re-
ports indicated that 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 2 to 5 feet high.
“When I got there, I took a bunch of photos, and then the
bridge seemed to quiet down,” he said.
So, around 10 a.m., Clifford ventured onto the center span
for some close-ups. The wind returned, however, and the bridge
began undulating again. The twists grew and grew until one side
of the roadway was tilting as much as 28 feet above the other,
then whipping back in the opposite direction. Clifford, a high
school football player, said he tucked the camera under his arm
and charged low toward the Tacoma shore.
“I heard the bridge cracking and snapping behind me,” he
said. The bridge rails weren’t very high and offered scant protec-
tion from being thrown into The Narrows, so Clifford tried to run
up the yellow line in the center of the roadway.
“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. I
was going as fast as I could, but because of the way the bridge
was moving, I was half-running, half-crawling,” he said. “It wasn’t
until later that day that I realized my trousers were torn and my
knees looked like hamburger.”
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 an entire section dropped into
the Sound. Within hours he was transmitting photos of the col-
lapse to media outlets around the world. His first-person account
of the event ran in that day’s special edition of the
Walter Howard Clifford died on Feb. 19, 2008. He was 96.
Howie Clifford