"These days most are aware of the location, identification and recoveries from the Titanic. The Titanic was a large ship but in comparison it would take 5.56 Titanics end for end to occupy the space that Galloping Gertie now occupies. In raw materials the bridge contained 5.0 times that of Titanic. These figures make Galloping Gertie the largest man made structure ever lost at sea. In addition, the current swept bottom of the Narrows has now become the largest single man made reef supporting an abundance of marine life."
- Robert Mester
President, Underwater Atmospheric Systems
The Engineers were enthusiastic. The builders were proud. The politicians pointed to it as a wonder of modern progress and people looked upon it in awe. They said it was a marvel. They said it was a modern wonder. They said it would forever stand as a monument to human ingenuity.
They said a lot of things……
Nature had other ideas.
South of Seattle and immediately due West of Tacoma lies "The Narrows" - a thin corridor of salt water that connects the Southern part of Puget Sound with the rest of this virtually inland emerald sea. A study regarding the construction of a huge suspension bridge spanning the Tacoma Narrows was authorized by the Washington State legislature in 1937 and an application was submitted by the State to the Federal government for partial funding in May of 1938. Designed to connect the Washington mainland with the then thinly populated Olympic Peninsula, the bridge was seen as a vital key in terms of opening up the rich and beautiful peninsula to economic development. Construction began in early 1939 and the first vehicle crossed the bridge with much fanfare on July 1st, 1940, during the opening ceremonies. A huge structure, the bridge consisted of two colossal towers soaring 425 feet above the massive piers from which a 2 lane concrete and metal roadway was suspended from steel cables, each of which was 17.5 inches in diameter. The overall weight supported by the cables was approximately 11,250 tons and over 20,000 miles of wire was used in the construction of the bridge. 5,939 feet long with a center span of 2,800 feet, the bridge was suspended 195 feet above the water (center span). The two piers on which the towers were mounted were also massive, 247 feet high on the Eastern side and 198 feet high on the West, each consisting of thousands of tons of concrete and steel. During the time that the bridge was operational, vehicles in their hundreds crossed the mighty span, greatly enhancing the economy of the South Sound area and breeding a heady optimism in both the surrounding communities and the state capitol.
From the very beginning, however, the great bridge displayed some worrisome tendencies. In even moderately strong winds it would tend to "buck" – literally dancing to and fro as the winds howled through the structure and the suspension cables. It took on a new nickname – "Galloping Gertie" – and many drivers avoided making the crossing during times of storms or high winds. Some engineers fearfully looked upon this tendency of the bridge to "gallop" and began to privately question the principles behind the basic design. The bridge would only be in operation for a few months before their fears would become reality.
The unthinkable finally occurred on November 7th, 1940. A typical windstorm had arrived in the South Sound area, bringing with it winds gusting between 35 and 46 mph. As if on cue, the great bridge began its dance, swinging back and forth as the high winds whistled through the cables. Most drivers turned back when they saw the spectacle, but a few with more faith in technology than in their own eyes braved the twisting roadway. The number of these "courageous" individuals shrank as the winds grew stronger and the movements of the bridge became more violent. State highway officials grew more and more alarmed as the undulations of the bridge increased and closed the bridge at 10:00 AM. Crowds, including many photographers, gathered to watch the spectacle; many convinced that they were about to witness a historical disaster. Finally, shortly after 10:30 AM, the first large slab of concrete fell out of the center span and hurtled down to the swirling waters below. Shortly after this at around 11:00 AM, with a huge roar and the thunder of snapping cables that could be heard above the howling wind, a number of the massive cables began to part and an additional estimated 600 foot long section of the remaining roadway broke out of the span, flipping upside down as it fell before thundering far below into Puget Sound. Only one lone driver had still been on the bridge – but he had managed to leap from his vehicle and, alternately running and crawling, made it to safety just prior to the final collapse, leaving his terrified dog behind in the car. The dog would prove to be the only casualty of the disaster.
As the huge pieces of roadway and bridge struck them, the turbulent waters of the Narrows splashed up into the air as though huge depth charges had suddenly exploded directly beneath the surface. It was all recorded on movie film, and for decades since people worldwide have watched in awe as this graphic example of nature's wrath has been shown in theaters, on television and in classrooms. To this day it is difficult to imagine a more abject lesson regarding the hubris of mankind when dealing with nature, and that lesson is now continuously hammered home in schools of engineering around the world.
Since then the great bridge has been replaced (using a different design) and the flow of traffic has resumed across the Narrows to the extent that a second span is even now being planned to handle the huge volume of traffic. From the shore the signs of the "Galloping Gertie" disaster can no longer be seen and the wreckage of the mighty span lies far beneath the swirling waters of the Narrows. It takes diving deep beneath the surface to find the twisted wreckage providing evidence of that terrible day long ago. Today, several charter operations conduct regular dives on the wreckage in addition to many dives from private boats. Hundreds of divers visit the remains of "Galloping Gertie" every year - the wreckage extends across the width of the Narrows and can be found in depths suitable for both sport and technical diving as well as deep exploration. In the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of Robert Mester and his company, Underwater Atmospheric Systems, a nomination based on sonar imagery of the wreckage was submitted to have the site added to the National Registry of Historical Places. This nomination was accepted and hopefully this addition to the registry will help preserve the remains of "Galloping Gertie" far into the future.
Just two days prior dense snow had been swirling throughout the Puget Sound area and we had been despairing that we would be in for a cold, miserable time on our latest planned visit to "Gertie". Within the previous 48 hours, however, "Old Man Winter" had decided to head back North where he belongs and the day dawned with a beautiful blue sky. For the first time in what had seemed to be months, the brilliant orb of the sun shone down to glint off the sparkling green waters of Puget Sound. As our dive boat, the "Misty Fjord", motored down the Narrows toward the resting place of the old bridge, we noted, to our extreme satisfaction, that the water was like glass and all seemed to be at a standstill. The huge towers of the new bridge stretched into the sky above us as the "Misty" came to a halt alongside the massive Western stanchion. There would be no need to seek shelter in the eddy behind the stanchion today – slack was in session and the current virtually undetectable, a rare situation for the Narrows and one for which we had planned. Staggering to the stern platform beneath the weight of my doubles and stage bottles I glanced over the side down into the rich green water…..visibility looked amazingly good! With a grunt and a splash, Randy Williams, my partner on this dive, hit the water and quickly headed toward the side of the stanchion. Within seconds I, too, strode off the stern of the Misty and then turned for her Captain, Jeff Rogers, to hand me my camera. With a couple of short kicks I found myself beside Randy and together we watched the Misty motor a short distance away to await our return.
Following a brief equipment check the two of us began our descent down the huge face of the concrete stanchion to the deep water below. When the new bridge was built it was constructed on the stanchions originally used for the old one, and thus they are literally covered with decades of marine growth that enshrouds every square inch of surface. As we plummeted toward the bottom and the thousands of barnacles and anemones whisked by I felt every bit like a skydiver falling next to a giant cliff splashed in color. This feeling was enhanced by the "free-fall" positions we assumed – face down with arms and legs spreadeagled. I found myself shouting "Woo-Hoo!" into my regulator as adrenalin rushed through me and I could swear that I heard similar sounds bursting out of Randy as well. As we sank deeper a green vista opened up before us and we realized that today we would have visibility approaching 40 feet, amazing for this stretch of water. As we reached the bottom of the stanchion in approximately 120 FSW we could see wreckage stretching out from its base in all directions. The ambient light was superb and the green glow of the sun could be seen as we looked up toward the surface.
Pausing only briefly at the base, by previous agreement we headed toward the Northeast, our lights dancing across the wreckage in an ongoing quest for anything that would catch our interest. Ling Cod, Rock Fish and Greenlings danced in and out of the beams of our lights as we scuttled around a bottom covered with wreckage to the extent that it looked like a battlefield. Numerous Red Irish Lords squatted amidst the thousands of barnacles covering the debris, often not moving until we physically touched them. With the visibility the way it was we were seeing wreckage that we had not seen before, or quite possibly simply seeing each massive chunk with a different perspective since we could see far more of it on this occasion. The bottom slants downward from the base of the pier and we kept to our dive plan limiting our depth to 150 FSW. Purple, orange, pink and tan Sea Stars littered the bottom and huge barnacles clawed into the water every few seconds, seeking a meal in the nutrients drifting by. It was bizarre to see a huge chunk of perfectly flat wreckage and suddenly realize that you're looking at what was once a well-traveled roadway long ago. Occasionally I would pause at a particular spot and signal Randy to approach and pose for a photograph next to some particularly intriguing piece of wreckage. Being the ham that he is, he was always glad to oblige!
As we approached the mid-point of our planned bottom time Randy spotted a unique pile of metal wreckage that can only be described as resembling the entrance to a cave approximately 5 feet across and 2 or 3 feet high. Immediately inside this "cave" entrance were large numbers of broken giant barnacle and crab shells, the usual sign that a Giant Pacific Octopus is probably in residence. Randy slowly eased himself inside the entrance while I waited just outside, his light darting to and fro in search of the hoped for occupant. He was able to go in approximately up to his ankles and then slowly backed out, signaling me that, indeed, Mr. Octo Q. Pus was in fact at home. Both light and camera extended, I slowly slithered into the hole for a look-see, hoping to get a good shot. The Octopus was clearly visible in the beam of my light at the far end of the chamber, but the available space tapered off the farther in that I went (being 6'4" and wearing doubles is a distinct handicap when it comes to squeezing into small spaces!) and I realized that he was out of range for my strobe. The suckers appeared to have been quite large and I would estimate this one to have been approximately 10 to 12 feet, tip to tip.
Immediately after the escapade with the Octopus we turned back toward the stanchion, following a compass heading back through the piles of wreckage. We have missed the stanchion before, and ended up conducting our decompression suspended from lift-bags while the boat followed us wherever the current took us. Going up the stanchion is definitely the way to go if a choice is to be had. After a few minutes on our compass heading, the huge vertical wall loomed largely in the green darkness and we made our way to its base. After a short pause to look around as a final farewell, we began our slow ascent to the surface, following the huge vertical shaft upward. We made our first stop for 1 minute at 90 FSW - it was to be the first of many such deco stops, but boring they would NOT be! Descending the wall had been like a sky dive next to a tall building……ascending would be far slower but with so much more to see. Various species of Sea Perch and Rockfish hovered near the stanchion, some obviously interested in us as we made our ascent. At each stop we were entertained by the antics of various types and sizes of Hermit, Kelp, Lyre, Decorator and Sharpnose Crabs. At one point Randy "captured" a beautiful example of a Heart Crab, which entertained me greatly by scrambling all over his shoulders, face and head while he tried to figure out where it was. Sculpins in particular were extremely well represented, with several different members of that genus being spotted during the deco stops darting in and out of the massive layer of barnacles and anemones. I found myself wishing that I had brought a second camera set up for macro work – there was so much going on that I could have taken an entire roll of film without moving 10 feet in any direction.
Finally, 40 minutes after leaving the bottom we broke through the surface into the sunshine. Jeff grinned at us from less than 10 feet way. He had been monitoring our progress up the stanchion and had slowly brought the "Misty" right where it needed to be for a nice easy collection of two (perfect examples of fine, fit?) middle-aged divers who are always only too happy to take things easy whenever they can! Minutes later, as Jeff turned the wheel of the "Misty" toward home and Randy and I began the slow process of stowing our gear we began to discuss what we had seen and experienced on this dive. Both of us are talkers, yet from each of us one word seemed to come up again and again…."magical". It had truly been a dive to both savor and remember.
Let the Diver Beware……
As was mentioned above, the wreckage of "Galloping Gertie" lies in waters shallow enough for the recreational diver yet deep enough for those with a taste for deep exploration. Some of the old anchoring blocks can be found as shallow as 50 FSW on the East side and rubble from the road bed at 60 FSW on the West. The deepest bridge structure is at approximately 235 FSW on the West side. No matter what your skill level or experience, "Galloping Gertie" is a dive that should never be taken lightly. It is a dive that requires adequate training, dedicated planning, boat support, personal skill and the right equipment. Currents in the Narrows can often be fierce and divers must understand the methods of dealing with them as well as planning for the very real possibility that their treasured dive plan will go awry. The wreckage itself covers a huge area and much of it will look the same, leading to problems with landmark recognition. In other words, a firm knowledge of underwater navigation and practice with lift-bag operations are both very good things.
The author would like to extend special thanks to Mr. Robert Mester of Underwater Atmospheric Systems for his gracious assistance in research for this article as well as for allowing the inclusion of his sonar map of the wreckage.