Thursday, August 12, 2010

A bridge made of tacos

Gather 'round, all ye children, and listen to my tale. Collapsing bridge stories have always intrigued me. Here you have structures that are carefully designed and built, gazillions of dollars spent. Only in rare cases do the builders cut corners. But wait 'til you hear about this one.

I became fascinated with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a.k.a. Galloping Gertie, about ten years ago. I did all sorts of research on the net, then forgot all about it and deleted all my links. Enough of that, I said, and went on to something else.

I don't know what brought it back. Looking for something to blog about besides my limp, depressed, tail-end-of-summer mood, maybe. Rather than go back over all that shit from ten years ago, I'm a-gonna tell you all about MY version of Galloping Gertie.
This was the late '30s, and nobody had any money because World War II hadn't properly started yet. At this point, Hitler looked like a swell guy who was just getting rid of the riff-raff.

But the folks in Tacoma, Washington needed a new bridge. The proposed model, a nice conservative squatty indestructible thing, looked like a safe deal. Then someone else stepped up to the plate: Elmer Fartsworthy (not his real name: I'm protecting his estate), who had this sleek new design for a modern bridge, an elegant bridge, a Bridge of the Future.

This thing used about half the materials of the other one, a real advantage during the Depression. It was something like 12 feet wide - OK, I exaggerate. Maybe 13. A long, thin ribbon of a bridge that Fartsworthy assured everyone would do the job, and look modern and bragworthy in the bargain: great for civic pride, the envy of two-bit towns everywhere.

Since Mr. F. had a hand in designing San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, everyone felt very enthusiastic. They were even more enthusiastic when F. said he could build his structure for $6 million, not the $11 million of the original. This six million dollar bridge was looking better all the time.

A funny thing, though - as they built it, the workers kept saying, "Hey. Is that supposed to happen?" The bridge kept swaying, even before it was completed. It kind of went side to side. The architect assured them this was only a standard lateral flexo-torsion with a side of fries, so they kept on with it. But the workers were so nauseated from motion sickness, they had to suck lemons to keep from throwing up.

When it opened with great fanfare in 1940, the thing was heaving up and down like a seasick sea serpent, but people soon flocked to Tacoma to take the wild ride. Galloping Gertie was so unstable that the car in front of you would literally sink and disappear. Never mind, said the designers and engineers. It would hold. This was just a normal variation of the flexor chattahoozus. The beast had more torque than any goddamn Golden Gate pussy bridge. It might whip back and forth like a double-Dutch skipping rope, but this only made the drive more interesting.


Until, one day, only a couple of months later, the wind began to blow.

There was no traffic on the bridge that morning. Just a car with a dog in it, mysteriously parked. The dog's name was Tubby. You have to know this, because it's the most important part of the story.

The bridge began to, well, not sway exactly, but flap back and forth like a bleeping pancake. It was heaving 30 feet in the air, first on one side, then the other, with a bizarre still point in the middle.

All over the world, architects and engineers had the same nightmare.

Violently it flew up and down, pitching and bucking. The guy who owned the car/dog actually walked down the middle of this thing, trusting soul, but his terrified dog practically bit his hand off. There is archival footage of him running his ass off to get away.

The seasick sea serpent continued to heave up and down in the most nauseous fashion, making a hideous shrieking sound that made bystanders plug their ears. At one point it looked like it might stop, but another gust of wind got it going even more violently.

Finally, the inevitable: one rivet flew out. Then a strip of metal sheared off. Then another. Wires snapped like spaghetti. With a deafening roar, the entire middle section of the bridge crumbled into the water like an overdone piece of toast. A moment later, another span groaned and gave way.

The thing just snapped like a bundle of twigs. I wonder what the designer was feeling, watching all this: how could this happen? Where did I go wrong? How soon can I get out of town?

Tubby didn't make it, but he was the only casuality. If this had happened at rush hour, who knows what the death toll would have been.

Supposedly, the disaster (still being dissected by engineers 70 years later, though not the same ones - maybe their great-grandchildren) would have happened even without the bargain basement price of the thing. Some said the bridge would not allow wind to pass through the sides, pushing it around like somebody blowing on one of them pinwheel things. Others said it was sexually aroused by a first cousin of the Loch Ness Monster which had taken up residence in Puget Sound, and was shimmying in a kind of frantic mating dance.

Others said it was just an atypical aeroflexomotor screw-up, with shi-fa-fa on the side. There followed a storm of accusations and counter-accusations, denial of all wrongdoing, exposure of corruption, and all that sort of thing.

An inspector who had been hired to make a safety assessment of the bridge before it opened had issued a severe warning that it would inevitably fail, but because the bridge was more popular than Seabiscuit, City Hall opened it anyway. After the failure, this same guy immediately had his ass fired for embarrassing everyone. No good deed goes unpunished.

I like this story. I like weird, atypical things happening, and mighty structures collapsing. I like the fact that there's lots of video (someone had the presence of mind to grab a camera and get some very tasty shots). Maybe it's my sense of anarchy.

But I do feel bad about the dog.