The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

The day in question was a recent Thursday, Day 4 of an unprecedented week-long heat wave in Seattle. Dear Husband woke me up at 10:30 am, because he knew I’d want to get dressed and go to the YMCA pool before work. That’s where we do our own aqua aerobics routine 4 days a week. And it’s true, I wanted to go. I always feel better when I do. But he woke me in the middle of REM sleep, and my dream popped like a bubble. I spent the rest of the morning in an incoherent fog, wishing I could go back to bed. In truth, that turned out to be the theme for the entire day.

While getting ready for the pool, I glanced at the news, and discovered that at 8:15 am, a ferry in Seattle had crashed into part of the pier’s protection system, which is made of steel and concrete and is called a dolphin for reasons I’ve never understood. It sits just off the end of the pier and is designed to absorb the kinetic energy from an impact so that the pier isn’t destroyed. Thank goodness it did its job. (You can read about the incident here and here.)

No one was hurt, but several cars on the ferry were damaged. (Note to self: stop trying so hard to be at the front of a line of cars when you take the ferry.) The vessel itself sustained millions of dollars of damage and will be out of commission for many months. At first the news reported that that particular ferry terminal would be closed for the rest of the day.

I remember thinking, in passing, that this was going to cause traffic problems, because a lot of people who work in Seattle live on Vashon Island, and the only way to get there is by sea or air. All those people would have to drive much further away to get to other ferry terminals if they wanted to get home with their cars. And there are only so many ferries. And those ferries are already experiencing extreme staffing shortages as so many people got fired after refusing the COVID vaccine. (Selfish fools.)

(It was only later that the word spread that the terminal was to be reopened at 3 pm. But by then, many people had already detoured. And how.)

Meanwhile, where was I? Oh yes, headed out for a morning swim. It was so hot that I was really looking forward to it. It had been in the mid 90’s for the past 4 days, and while that may not seem all that bad from a Southern standpoint, especially since the humidity wasn’t that high, you have to understand that this almost never happens around here.

Historically, the average temperature on this date is 78 degrees. Most people didn’t even bother to have air conditioning in their homes in this area until about two years ago. And of course, the less affluent people still don’t have it, although it is now desperately needed. I can’t imagine the strain this sudden use of AC is going to put on the power grid. (Thanks, global warming deniers.)

So, when we arrived at the pool, it was full to overflowing with children on summer break attempting to beat the heat. I’ve never seen so many people in that pool, and we’ve been going there for years. There was no point in even trying to swim. I felt sweaty and defeated on the ride back home.

Had I known the day would get exponentially worse, I might have gone back to bed.

Still in a mental fog, I tried to get some housework done with mixed results. Then I attempted a nap before work, but the dogs apparently took umbrage with that, so I was never allowed to fully sleep.

On this day, I’d be working from 3 to 11 pm, so as per usual I left the house at 1:30 in hopes of arriving around 2:30. I do this because you never know what the commute will be like. On this day, I’d be grateful that I did that.

A brief Seattle geography lesson for you: Seattle has a population of 733,919, all crammed into 83.9 square miles. That’s nearly 8,748 people per square mile. And there’s no room for expansion, because it’s squeezed between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. You get a good idea of how packed the area is when you consider that the average population density for the whole country is about 94 people per square mile, and the average population density for all of Washington state is about 116 people per square mile.

And it’s so expensive to live in this city that many workers, like me, live elsewhere and commute in.  According to this report by the Seattle Department of Transportation, at its pre-COVID peak, the average daily traffic volume in Seattle was 1,015,722 vehicles. So, yeah, crowded is an understatement.

It was a good thing I left early, because little did I know, there was a truck on fire, with a payload of liquid oxygen that caused multiple explosions, and that completely shut down the southbound interstate. Granted, I was going north, but this caused a lot of looky-loos, and even more people being rerouted onto the surface streets I use to reach my final destination.

I arrived for my 3 pm shift at 2:59. I hate arriving so late. The bridgetender I relieve can’t leave until I arrive. If I had arrived at 3:01, by rights he could have screwed me out of a half hour’s pay, although most of us aren’t that cruel. And I had been texting him about the delays.

Between the truck on fire, the ferry disaster, and the blistering heat, I knew this would be a long day. And of course, in my rush to get from my car to the tower, I left my phone to bake on the black dashboard of my car. Great. Just great.

On days this hot, bridgetenders have to worry about heat expansion. If the bridge expands enough, it can bind together and be impossible to open. Needless to say, this is something we’d prefer to avoid. So I knew that in addition to opening the bridge for boats, I’d also have to stop traffic so that our flusher truck could make multiple passes on our metal span to spray cooling water on it.

Here’s a video I took of one such pass on the day. It’s shortened to not take up as much digital space, but it gives you an idea. The average pass that day took about 4 minutes, and on my shift alone they came through 7 times. In addition to that, I had to open the bridge 9 times for vessels, and each time I had to do these 16 things, traffic was backed up for miles in both directions, adding to the citywide snarl.

On non-holiday weekdays, the coastguard allows our bridge to remain closed to vessels for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, to allow for rush hour. (An extension of those timeframes is long overdue in Seattle, in my opinion.)

But on this day, due to the heat, the flusher trucks had to keep coming, so even though I was still able to not open the bridge to vessels during the closed period, I was still required to stop traffic to allow the flusher trucks to make their passes. That decision was well above my paygrade, although I did point out the problems involved.

I kept thinking of the people whose cars would overheat and stall during those backups, and it would be even worse for those who had cars with air conditioners that blow hot air when the car is not moving forward. (I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime.) Believe me, I really don’t like backing up traffic even on the coolest of days, but I only have so much control.

In the average week, 19,000 cars cross University Bridge, but that greatly increases when a good portion of the 233,000 weekly vehicles that usually cross the interstate’s Ship Canal Bridge to my west have to detour. (Again, this is based on 2021 data. One can assume that it was even higher prior to telecommuting.) So you can imagine how stressful it was for me to realize that I was adding quite a bit to the traffic problem, and that wasn’t even counting all the bicyclists and pedestrians I was baking in the sun.

At 4 pm I had to run downstairs to sidewalk level to measure all the gaps in the bridge, to see if we were in the danger zone yet. (I took that opportunity to retrieve my sizzling hot phone from my car.) By the time I got back to the tower I was drenched in sweat, and feeling kind of sick from the heat. And since I hadn’t had a chance to exercise that morning, my shoulder was killing me.

During all that shift’s chaos, I also had to respond at length to several time sensitive and confrontational work e-mails, maintain various log books, deal with cranky overheated pedestrians who were crawling under the lowered traffic gates during bridge openings, thus putting their lives at risk, and writing reports thereon to get ahead of the inevitable complaints.

And then somewhere along in there, I got a call from 911 dispatch re: a 4-year-old girl walking across the bridge, un-escorted. I looked everywhere, but I didn’t see her. Never hearing the end of such stories tends to add to my stress. I hope she is okay, but in a way I was kind of relieved, because the only thing I might have been able to do is coax her into the bridge tower with me until the police arrived. That would have been uncomfortable and distract me from the other things I was dealing with, and may have left me open to liability.

Despite all the bridge flushing, their efforts that day only increased our bridge gaps by 2/10ths of an inch. They were ordered to keep coming until 7:30 pm. This, despite the fact that the bridge traditionally stops expanding around 5pm because the sun is now low in the sky.  

Finally, I was hoping to catch my breath around 8:30 pm. I would have liked to have had dinner. I was starving. But then tug Island Chief, pushing a 3000 gross ton gravel barge, requested an opening. It’s not like he’s able to slam on the brakes or paddle in circles. Sigh.

I was able to let him through promptly and efficiently, but during my closing of the bridge, I noticed two middle-aged ladies on the other side of the span who had gotten past the gate. This was kind of startling, because it’s usually young men hopped up on testosterone and idiocy who pull that kind of caper. Truth be told, they were probably standing in a safe place, but since they had already proven that they were willing to ignore the rules and behave unpredictably, I couldn’t be sure that they would stay in that safe place. That’s how people get hurt or even killed.

I had to stop the opening, which always enrages the vehicle drivers. I got on the intercom and politely asked the ladies to get back behind the gate for their safety. They pretended to ignore me, but they reacted by crossing their arms and glaring, and did not move. I asked them two more times. Finally, when I described what they were wearing, where they were located, and that they were backing up traffic, other pedestrians stepped in and embarrassed them into getting back behind the gate.

I knew this should generate a report, but things weren’t slowing down, and frankly, that happens all the time. (But these two ladies are repeat offenders, so I had the pleasure of reporting them days later, in hopes that my coworkers would be on the lookout for them.)

I decided to heat my TV dinner and did some more openings while I waited. I was starting to get the shakes, both from hunger, and the adrenaline dump of the day. I heard my food exploding in the microwave, and had to salvage what I could from its interior walls after the bridge was once again seated.

I finally ate and was able to turn on my personal laptop for first time at 9 pm. Now, I’m two days behind on building up a blog post surplus for my next vacation, but obviously work obligations will always come first. I made a futile attempt to gather thoughts for blog, but my brain was too scattered at this point.

It was getting dark, and for the first time I looked up to see that the previous bridgetender had left the ceiling lights on. They’re practically unnoticeable in the daylight, but they do get up to 100 degrees when left on. Huh. No wonder I hadn’t been able to adequately cool the tower all shift.

Usually things slow down after sunset, but sailboats continued to trickle in until 10 pm. (They do seem to enjoy spacing themselves out. It’s quite irritating.)

So that left me an hour to clean the tower, breathe, and visit friends in the virtual world of Second Life for a few minutes, to vent, much like I’m doing with this post. Usually, we have the place where we hang out entirely to ourselves. That has been the case for more than a decade.

But not on this night. Of course not. Instead, some random avatar popped in. His profile said he was a guy from Russia who was here to practice English. He insisted that we switch from communicating by text to communicating by voice, and we refused. He got agitated and asked how he was supposed to know we were really women.

That’s when I knew we were being trolled by a teenager, most-likely American, looking for cybersex. Why else would our gender matter? One of the many joys of Second Life is to be able to take new people at word value and not worry about the minutiae. That can always come later, once you’ve formed an opinion as to their character and have decided if they’re trustworthy.

Can I be blamed if, after the day I had, I got a little snarky with him? He promptly disappeared. (I can’t remember if I had the chance to say, “And by the way, stop killing Ukrainians, you Russian baby-man!” before he popped out. I hope I did.)

I was finally able to leave the bridge at 11 pm. I was so tired that I felt like crying during the commute. Halfway home I got a text from the on-call supervisor, asking if I could work half of the graveyard shift on another bridge, as someone had called in sick, and we are desperately understaffed. I sent her a long, rambling, probably incoherent voice text describing my day and my exhaustion. But my message boiled down to hell no, and she was decent enough not to argue with me about it.

I got home at 11:40 pm. I plopped down on the recliner and had a lime popsickle. I took a shower. I went to bed at 1215 am. Dear husband was wonderful and gave me a back rub in the hopes that I would be able to wind down and get to sleep.

I think I only managed to get about 3 hours of sleep, because I was so adrenalized and I was doing a mind grind. That was highly unfortunate, because the next day I was working the day shift, and had to get up at 5:20 am to be to work at my usual 6:30 am, in hopes of actually getting there before 7 am. And that day was every bit as hot and every bit as busy. But at least the traffic was a tiny bit lighter. No explosions. No ferry catastrophes.

If you ever hear someone say that bridgetending is all about some lazy person sleeping in a chair and occasionally pushing one button in order to let a boat through, without any regard to safety or traffic flow, kindly slap them for me. (Just hard enough to startle them, not hard enough to hurt them.) Then make them read this post.

And then tell me about it. I’d like to enjoy the moment vicariously. I could use an emotional cookie right about now. And a hug. Yeah. That would be good.

Now is the perfect time to stay at home and read a good book. Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

2 thoughts on “Exploding Trucks, an Abandoned 4-Year-Old, and Drawbridge Heat Expansion: One Helluva Day

  1. Angiportus Librarysaver says:

    Yow. I’m sorry you had such an awful day. Here’s hoping it gets better and keeps doing so.
    is there a special ruler you measure the gap with? What are the usual stats for the center-break?
    My doctor is from Kyrgyzstan, identifies as Russian, and with all the other things we’ve been arguing about, I haven’t dared to mention the Ukraine.

    1. We use calipers at designated locations so the data remains comparable. On a cold winter day, I’ve seen it up to 2 inches wide at center span, When it gets down to about 3/10ths of an inch is when it’s time to panic. But it’s always changing. You don’t want a rigid bridge, or you get Galloping Gertie.
      And yeah, I’d be hesitant to broach the Ukraine subject with someone who can make me bend over and cough. Priorities.

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