Vintage audio from 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse

Nov 6, 2020, 9:56 AM | Updated: 10:17 am
Tacoma Narrows Bridge...
The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge twists in the wind shortly before it collapsed on the morning of November 7, 1940. (US Dept of Transportation)
(US Dept of Transportation)

Saturday, Nov. 7, marks the 80th anniversary of the dramatic collapse of Galloping Gertie, the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge. KIRO Radio was on the scene shortly after the disaster, and produced a live national report for CBS Radio – recordings of which survive thanks to KIRO’s unusual policy of recording news programs during the 1940s.

There are two bridges carrying traffic over the Tacoma Narrows these days, but they were, of course, not the first.

The original bridge opened to traffic on July 1, 1940. It had problems almost right away because the girders supporting the roadway were solid – like a sail or a wing – and even a mild amount of wind could start the span swaying and bouncing. This is why the bridge was quickly nicknamed “Galloping Gertie.”

When the center span of the suspension bridge collapsed on the windy morning of Thursday Nov. 7, 1940 – after just four months of serving Puget Sound drivers – KIRO Radio produced a 15-minute live report for CBS Radio that aired nationally around 2 p.m. Pacific Time.

Maury Ryder, one of KIRO’s best-known voices in the 1940s, was broadcasting live from the Tacoma side of the bridge, where he took an eyewitness account from Bob Owens of the Highway Department.

“The bridge at that time I arrived was swinging very wildly from side to side and also up and down,” Owens said. “There was one car on the bridge and a truck loaded with lumber. And the car was bouncing, in fact, it left the deck of the bridge, turned over on its side. Then at 11:10, there was one big heave to the north, it swung back to the south, and she began to break up.”

“I see, Bob,” Ryder said. “And how long after that before the whole 2,800 foot center span gave out?”

“Well, that was at 11:10 when it all went in, Maury,” Owens said.

“The whole thing went in at 11:10, is that right?” Ryder asked.

“That’s right,” Owens said.

“And nobody was hurt?” Ryder asked.

“No one injured at all,” Owens replied.

“How did that fella get off that was in his car out there on the bridge?” asked Ryder.

“The last few hundred feet he crawled off on his hands and knees,” Owens said.

That famous “fella” who crawled off was Leonard Coatsworth of the News Tribune. His Studebaker and his dog Tubby were both lost in the collapse.

Maury Ryder was joined by Carroll Foster, another popular KIRO voice during the war years. Carroll Foster, thanks to United Airlines, was flying over the bridge to give a live report from the sky.

“From our vantage point, the roadway running up to each tower, each 425-foot tower from the buttress, the land end buttresses of the bridge, are intact. The entire center span of the bridge over Puget Sound is out, and from our vantage point, it looks as though it were a toy bridge with 50 yards from each tower suspended over the Sound and the very ends of it dragging like broken ribbon into the water.”

Forensic engineers and college engineering classes would go on to study and debate the Narrows Bridge collapse for decades, but the simplest explanation for the cause was actually broadcast nationally by KIRO via CBS – and even quoted the next day in the New York Times.

Speaking to Maury Rider, bridge engineer Charles Andrew – often misidentified in print as “C.E. Andrews” – pointed to the wind and to those troublesome solid girders.

“We have had much higher winds than what occurred today, but it’s the particular type of wind that caused the vibration that caused the failure,” Andrew said. “And I think that it’s due entirely to the use of solid web girders as stiffening trusses, instead of the usual open-type girder that is usually used on suspension bridges.”

With the bridge out of service (to put it mildly), cross-Narrows car ferry service resumed while plans were made for quick replacement of the span.

However, the replacement bridge – named “Sturdy Gertie” for the safety and engineering improvements incorporated in the new design – didn’t open until October 1950. If any recordings of KIRO Radio’s coverage of that “new” bridge’s grand opening ever turn up, we’ll be sure and share them here.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Vintage audio from 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse