When the Hood Canal Bridge sank 30 years ago
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This Feb. 14, 1979, photo of the sunken Hood Canal Bridge, shows the missing western portion after a powerful storm the night before.

By Jeff Chew
Peninsula Daily News

SHINE -- It was 30 years ago Friday that hurricane-force winds sank the west half of the Hood Canal Bridge, and those who witnessed the aftermath of the catastrophe greeted it with disbelief, shock, fear and amazement.

Coincidentally, the anniversary happens to be Friday the 13th.

And it comes during preparations for a six-week closure of the floating bridge, beginning May 1, to replace the eastern half.

The 1979 disaster that for three years severed the North Olympic Peninsula's eastern highway link is still fresh in the mind of Tom Thompson, the lone photographer at The Daily News, which later became the Peninsula Daily News.

He captured images that hit the national news wire that day.

Thompson's editor dispatched him shortly after 7 a.m. to head east and capture the calamity on film.

He recalls a "white-knuckle" drive from Port Angeles, driving through buffeting winds and dodging fallen trees and debris strewn across state Highway 104 in Jefferson County.

That night the area was hit with relentless, pounding wind gusts between 80 and 120 mph.

Thompson, who was the first newspaper photographer on the scene, recalls an other-worldly sight upon arrival.

Bridge in the brink

The steel transfer span that once led from the land span to the rest of the floating bridge was half dipped into the canal. The west half of the bridge was gone, and off in the distance the east half was still afloat.

"The sun was breaking through the clouds enough to provide the light I needed for photography, but it was still an eerie feeling to be aware of the clouds overhead that had been a part of the storm that could do so much damage," he said.

Thompson stomped through the brambles to capture the right angle and quickly left to make his 11 a.m. deadline for what was then an evening newspaper.

"After I took some more shots from the southern side of the bridge to illustrate the damaged span and the open gap where the bridge used to be, I rushed back to my car and threaded my way back through the maze of debris and made it back to the office with just enough time to process my film and produce three or four quick prints and the presses rolled shortly after."

The now-retired photographer left the scene with a mix of emotion.

"It was like somebody had hit you in the chest. It was kind of like an internal thud.

It was kind of part fear, part excitement. I was glad to even get there."

'It can't be'

Herb Beck, a longtime Port of Port Townsend commissioner who has also served on the Peninsula Regional Transportation Planning Organization board that includes Clallam and Jefferson County representatives, voiced shock upon seeing the sunken bridge that day.

"When I first heard it happened I didn't believe it," Beck said. "I had to drive over there to see it myself."

Upon seeing it, Beck recalls thinking, "It can't be."

Beck, who at the time worked at U.S. Naval Base Keyport in Kitsap County, suddenly realized that his normal route to work had been cut off.

What he did not know was that it would be like that until it was rebuilt and reopened on Oct. 3, 1982.

During that period, Beck recalls a period filled with anxiety caused by longer trips from Quilcene to work at Keyport and back using shuttle buses and ferry.

"Those were long days, and I missed a lot of time with my children for three years," he said.

After a passenger ferry was set up between South Point at Bridgehaven in Jefferson County to Lofall in Kitsap County, Beck said the Navy base provided bus shuttle service to employees like him and a boat for medical emergencies.

'Managed to survive'

"It made a whole difference in our lifestyles, but we managed to live through it," he said. "People adjusted to it. We managed to survive it and keep our sanity."

Beck said he believes the May 1 six-week closure to replace the bridge's east half should be a breeze compared to the 1979 disaster, with more stores now on the North Olympic Peninsula side of the canal.

Beck, a Quilcene native, said his community can expect traffic down U.S. Highway 101 to increase dramatically.

He recalls "a rumble of traffic 24 hours a day" during the 1979-1982 bridge outage but believes the reconstruction of the west half was completed as quickly as possible.

During Beck's 15 years on the Peninsula Regional Transportation Planning Organization board, he said, "Our main objective is the Hood Canal Bridge -- to see it through, ever since it went down."

A Port Townsend-Edmonds car ferry service was set up during the 1979-82 closure.

Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson remembers coming back from a trip to southern Washington and getting stuck on the ferry overnight when heavy seas forced the ferry to return to Edmonds.

"It was a nuisance to get back and forth," he said. "We came over on the Edmonds run and they couldn't tie the boat up, so we went back to Edmond where they tied up. I was on the boat all night."

Catastrophic failure

As reported in The Daily News, the bridge's catastrophic failure came after the drawspan was opened to relieve pressure on the floating structure.

The bridge's control tower crew had evacuated before the hatches on the supporting pontoons blew open and water rushed inside them.

Water filled the pontoons sank like rocks breaking up the bridge shortly after a truck driver who mistakenly crossed onto the close bridge barely escaped in his vehicle.

Two state pickups, a bridge worker's car, a crane, air compressor and tools all went down with the bridge section, The Daily News reported in an interview with Chuck Meyers, a 60-year-old bridge control tower worker who opened the draw span at about 2 a.m. the day it sank.

Escaping the listing bridge, Meyers said he was without fear, "until after I got up there and turned around and watched it break up. Then I got a little shock."

He watched as "they went down and it peeled one pontoon after another."

It cost $143 million to replace the bridge's west half, compared to the $477.8 million budgeted to replace the bridge's eastern half this year.

The east half will be towed into place and installed after the decrepit old stretch is removed.

The bridge toll was $1.50 per car for five years before the bridge closed, but it reopened with a $2.50 per car fee, igniting a controversy.

As a result of public outcry, tolls first were reduced to $2, then lifted entirely in August 1985 after a court ruling that the insurance settlement constituted repayment of the construction bonds.

The state Legislature acted to prevent tolls from ever again being charged to cross the Hood Canal Bridge.


Port Townsend-Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at jeff.chew@peninsuladailynews.com

Last modified: February 13. 2009 4:45AM
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