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Bridges Over Troubled Waters

10/20/2006

A wind storm sent the bridge known as Galloping Gertie crashing to the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows more than half a century ago. A third Tacoma Narrows Bridge is now under construction, and this time, the turbulent waters of the Narrows have been a serious hazard for bridge builders. In part five of his series on the swirling currents of Puget Sound, Producer John Ryan takes us deep inside the giant blender known as the Tacoma Narrows.

TRANSCRIPT

DONOHUE: "One-six-five."

NEUMANN: "Divin' in the shallows today."

THAT BREATHING YOU HEAR IS KIRK NEUMANN. HE'S ALONE IN THE DARK, A HUNDRED SIXTY-FIVE FEET UNDERWATER IN THE TACOMA NARROWS.

DONOHUE : "Looks like it should be, no tangled wires or anything?"

NEUMANN: "Negative. That looks good, I'm going down, slack down line, slack diver."

NEUMAN IS HELPING INSTALL THE UNDERWATER FOUNDATIONS FOR THE NEW TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE. IT'S BEING BUILT JUST 60 YARDS AWAY FROM THE EXISTING BRIDGE BETWEEN TACOMA AND GIG HARBOR.

AN UMBILICAL CORD BRINGS AIR INTO HIS DIVING HELMET AND A SHOWER OF HOT WATER INTO HIS WETSUIT. A VIDEO FEED CONNECTS HIM TO THE SURFACE AND TO HIS COWORKER FROM ASSOCIATED UNDERWATER SERVICES, KERRY DONOHUE.

DONOHUE: "You're always under the gun. You have to accomplish eight hours of work in about an hour to get through the tides. If you're trying to put a large piece of steel in underwater, current will grab it and sail it around like a kite."

MOST OF THE TIME, CURRENTS MAKE THE NARROWS TOO DANGEROUS FOR ANY DIVING, LET ALONE WORKING WITH HEAVY EQUIPMENT LIKE THE UNDERWATER TORCH NEUMANN IS USING. IT'S BURNING THROUGH STEEL AT 10,000 DEGREES.

A DIVER WHO STAYS DOWN TOO LONG MIGHT GET SWEPT AWAY, TANGLED IN A MAZE OF CABLES OR SHOT TO THE SURFACE FAST ENOUGH TO GET THE BENDS. IF HE COULD STAY IN PLACE, HE'D BE POUNDED BY THE BASKETBALL-SIZED BOULDERS THAT ROLL ALONG THE SEAFLOOR.

THE NEW BRIDGE TOWERS STARTED OUT AS FLOATING CONCRETE BOXES, OR CAISSONS, EACH ABOUT THE SIZE OF A SEVEN-STORY BUILDING. AS LAYER AFTER LAYER OF CONCRETE WAS ADDED TO THE SURFACE, THE CAISSONS SANK BIT BY BIT. THESE FLOATING, UNDERWATER SKYSCRAPERS GREW SLOWLY DOWNWARD FOR MONTHS, UNTIL THEY HIT THE BOTTOM OF THE SOUND.

TO SECURE THE FLOATING TOWERS AGAINST CURRENTS PUSHING IN EVERY DIRECTION, CONSTRUCTION TEAMS JACKHAMMERED 64 ENORMOUS ANCHORS INTO THE SEA FLOOR.

NEUMANN: "I'm on the bottom."

DONOHUE: "Roger."

KERRY DONOHUE TELLS OF A CLOSE CALL WHEN A DIVER WAS SLOWLY CLIMBING A GIANT ANCHOR CHAIN ON HIS WAY TO THE SURFACE, LIKE JACK IN THE BEANSTALK. THE CURRENT GREW SO STRONG THAT HE COULDN'T LET GO OF THE SUPERSIZE CHAIN LINKS.

DONOHUE: "He basically had his arms locked through the links and his feet around the bottom of the links in what was named after that the koala death grip. We had to pull the chain and the diver out of the water and swung the crane over and put the diver on the deck of the dive barge to get him in the decompression chamber, or we wouldn't have gotten him back."

THE SIX-MONTH TUG-OF-WAR AGAINST THE NARROWS ACTUALLY BROKE A FEW OF THOSE GIANT STEEL CHAINS. BUT THE BRIDGE TEAM LANDED BOTH CAISSONS ON THE SEAFLOOR SAFELY AND WITHIN TWO INCHES OF THEIR TARGETS.

FOR DONOHUE, THE HAZARDS WERE OFFSET BY THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE NARROWS, A PLACE FEW HUMANS HAVE EVER SEEN. HIS 'OFFICEMATES' INCLUDED GIANT OCTOPUS UP TO 14 FEET ACROSS.

DONOHUE: "A huge octopus. Some people see those things in the wild maybe once in their life, we saw them pretty much every day for two years."

OCEANOGRAPHER CURT EBBESMEYER HASN'T BEEN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE NARROWS, BUT HE HAS SPENT DECADES STUDYING OCEAN CURRENTS. HE SAYS IF YOU'RE STUCK IN TRAFFIC ON THE TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE, YOU CAN WITNESS ONE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST NATURAL WONDERS.

EBBESMEYER: "The currents are spectacular. You can see the water boiling up from 600 feet down in the main basin of Puget Sound off Tacoma right to the surface. It's just majestic if you've got your eyes tuned to that kind of thing."

THE WORLD'S BIGGEST RIVER IS THE AMAZON. BUT ON A STRONG TIDE, ABOUT TWICE AS MUCH WATER FLOWS THROUGH THE TACOMA NARROWS. ALL THE SEAWATER THAT FLOODS INTO SOUTH PUGET SOUND TWICE A DAY GETS CHURNED UP AS IT SQUEEZES THROUGH THE NATURAL FUNNEL OF THE NARROWS.

EBBESMEYER: "It is a tremendous Mixmaster. It drains the main basin of its deep water that would normally be stagnant like if it were in Hood Canal."

EBBESMEYER SAYS THE TOP-TO-BOTTOM MIXING REPLENISHES OXYGEN DEEP BENEATH THE SURFACE AS FAR NORTH AS WHIDBEY ISLAND. I ASK HIM WHAT OUR REGION MIGHT LOOK LIKE IF THE TACOMA NARROWS DIDN'T STIR THINGS UP?

EBBESMEYER: "We would live on a stagnant fjord, there would be probably no life below maybe 100 feet, and I mean no life. You could not put sewage effluent in Puget Sound. Our lifestyles would be quite a bit different."

SO THE NEXT TIME YOU FLUSH YOUR TOILET, YOU MAY WANT TO SAY A LITTLE THANK YOU TO THE TACOMA NARROWS.

EARL WHITE IS THANKFUL TO BE ALIVE AFTER HIS JOB HIGH ABOVE THE NARROWS.

THE 85-YEAR-OLD IRONWORKER HELPED BUILD THE SECOND TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE, STARTING IN 1948. HE PROUDLY RECALLS HIS DAREDEVIL NIGHTS ON THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT, HUNDREDS OF FEET OVER THE SWIRLING WATERS.

WHITE: "I've put my share in on lots of rough jobs, but this one out here, it topped 'em all. One slip and you were gone. We lost two men putting in the roadbed alone."

THE IRONWORKERS CLIMBED CHAIN-LINK CATWALKS TO THE TOP OF THE 500-FOOT TOWERS. IN GALE-FORCE WINDS AND BLIZZARDS, THEY BALANCED ON SIX-INCH-WIDE STEEL BEAMS. THEY DIDN'T WEAR SAFETY HARNESSES.

EARL WHITE LOST A GOOD FRIEND, WHITEY DAVIS.

WHITE: "Like I say, we weren't twenty feet apart when he stepped down from the top flange of the deck beam, why he missed it and he went all the way. It sounded like an artillery piece had gone off, that's how hard he hit the water. That current is so fast, they never did find the bodies of the ironworkers."

WHITE: "Sometimes you'd walk up that cable, it was so foggy, you couldn't see hand in front of your face, maybe you got up, 500-foot level, all of a sudden, we could see the tops of four mountains poking up through that overcast, it just made you think you were about as close to heaven as you'd ever get."

WHITE: "I can't go across it yet today without a lot of pride in the project we completed."

THAT PROJECT IS NOW AMERICA'S FIFTH-LONGEST SUSPENSION BRIDGE. WHEN THE NEW TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE OPENS RIGHT NEXT DOOR IN ABOUT NINE MONTHS, IT WILL BE THE LONGEST SUSPENSION BRIDGE BUILT IN THIS COUNTRY IN 40 YEARS.

I'M JOHN RYAN, KUOW NEWS.

© Copyright 2006, KUOW

11.23.14

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