My Scariest Bridge Moment

Most drawbridges, unless they are automated or opened by appointment only, are manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is a very good reason for this. Maritime law predates most other law by as much as a century. Impeding maritime transit in any way is a HUGE no-no. Bridgetenders who abandon a bridge without express permission from the Coast Guard can be prosecuted.

In my experience, the only time I’ve seen a ‘tender-less bridge is when said bridge was in the path of an imminent hurricane. Needless to say, no sane vessel is out in that weather, and it’s generally poor form to kill off one’s employees. Or so you’d think.

Unfortunately, I was once caught up in a Florida Department of Transportation snafu of epic proportions. A tropical storm was headed our way. To reach tropical storm category, the winds have to be 39 to 73 miles per hour. Per the Coast Guard, we cannot open a drawbridge if the sustained winds are 39 miles per hour or more, so they were already announcing on the marine radio that all bridges would be closed.

The Department of Transportation was disassembling our traffic gates and tying them to our railings so they’d still be there when the storm was over. So we couldn’t open the bridge due to wind. And we had no traffic gates. The Coast Guard was announcing that the bridges were closed. So we should be able to get off the dangerous windy bridges, right?

Oh no. Even though I didn’t work for DOT, but rather for a subcontractor, DOT got to make the decision. And they decided that since this was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, we had to stay put.

But the weather forecast was predicting that it would be upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane by the time it reached us. That means 74 to 95 mile per hour winds. But that “official” change would not take place until after regular office hours. Pretty please, can we take shelter? No.

If I wanted to keep my job and not go to prison, I had to go to work. Streets were flooded. Trees were down. I had to detour several times just to get to my destination. Then I had to walk up the bridge. The rain was coming at me sideways. It felt like I was being pelted with ice cold hypodermic needles. I had to lean into the wind to make progress. Forget about an umbrella. Impossible.

To make matters worse, it was the graveyard shift, and even at the best of times at that hour you feel like you’re the only person alive on the face of the earth. I was sitting all alone in a tenderhouse that was 3 feet wide by 8 feet long. I’ve seen coffins that were bigger. I hoped that this wasn’t going to become mine.

The bridge was swaying. I watched as transformers blew up all over town. The phone went down first. Then my power went out, and the generator kicked in. I was soon to wish that it hadn’t.

Imagine this: I’m trapped in a little room with a big electrical console and suddenly the wind shifts and is now at such an angle that the sideways rain is pouring through the crack where the window meets the sill. I now have a cascade of water flowing down the wall, past my feet, and heading toward the electrical wiring.

Fortunately there’s a hatch in the floor. So I open the hatch, take a broom, and sweep the water down the hatch. And I do this for, literally, 5 straight hours.

At the end of my shift, the worst was over. I was amazed to be alive, and even more amazed that my coworker came in to relieve me. I walked off the bridge, soaking wet, exhausted, in 40 mile per hour winds and temperatures in the 50’s. Talk about a wind chill factor. By time I got home (which was no mean feat since power lines were down everywhere), my lips were blue. We heated water in the fireplace so I could take a bath.

Never once did anyone take ownership of that fiasco. No one was fired. No one apologized. Policies were not changed. But I have a blog, so I can have the last word. But do I even have to tell you my opinion of the Florida Department of Transportation? I think you can guess.

050709-N-0000B-001
U.S. Navy photo by Jim Books (RELEASED)

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10 thoughts on “My Scariest Bridge Moment

  1. Angiportus

    Yow. You’re better off here all right–until the Big One hits, anyway.
    I had a much less scary but still unsettling moment one time shorty after arrival in 1978. One summer evening I wandered down to the canal from the U district. Came to the Montlake Bridge and went down the many stairs to the water’s edge. Now anyone who hasn’t been there should know that there’s a walkway on each side of the canal that goes right under the bridge, with a metal handrail, and one can stand right underneath when it lifts. Which is pretty neat. Anyway, what did I find but *almost* under the bridge, the railing was spectacularly deformed–this one section of it was bent downward, I mean the top rail was, and the next section of that rail had pulled loose from its post, angling upward some 15 or 20 degrees. What on earth could have unleashed such a devastating force? And that was right where I walk!
    The impact had knocked the silver paint right off of the bent-est part. Where the railing had torn loose from the post, 1/4-inch of metal had been ripped like modeling clay. I could not figure out for the life of me what had happened (I knew a lot less about physics than now.) And then I saw a red spot on the sidewalk. –Sure enough, my nose told me it was what I suspected. And recent too, not more than a couple or 3 hours. I began to realize what it must have been. With my eyes I followed the line from the Montlake Bridge’s railing down to the canalside one, some 50 or 60 feet… –Sure enough, the papers next day confirmed it. Someone had jumped, and they did not survive. And from then on, I stood under the bridge, not just outside it, and moved fast when passing thru the danger zone.
    I support the right of a person to end their life, but yeesh. I wonder if they had been working for someone who treated them like expendable crap, the way the Florida DOT so inexcusably did with you?

    1. Jumpers are never far from my thoughts. Occupational hazard. Most people don’t think about it, but any bridge you cross that’s of a decent height has probably had at least one jumper. Bridges are closely linked with death.
      I met someone recently who was driving under an overpass when a jumper landed on the hood of her car. He didn’t make it either. I bet she has PTSD.

  2. WOW, thats insane. I’m sorry that you had to go through that. I can’t even imagine what you must have been feeling during your shift. I experienced a few hurricanes since I have been here in Louisiana. It is by far, one of the scariest things I have experienced in my life. I’m glad you made it to tell your story, which I enjoyed immensely, by the way. I pray that they change some of these crazy ass laws so you don’t have to ever endure that kind of craziness again.

  3. Angiportus

    …And I want to reiterate that I too am sorry you went thru being treated so shabbily. I have never experienced a hurricane, but being stranded in a 200 mph Alaskan storm due to no fault of my own, dragged out there by people who figured they had the right to ship me around right and left without consent, like a dog in a crate, just because I was a minor (what were we doing in that craphole to start with, and why didn’t anyone study up on high wind conditions?) was no picnic. It was an amazing phenomenon, and I am proud to say I never panicked, but the people I was trapped among left something to be desired.

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