The Two Towers I:
Introduction

Two TowersOpportunities like this don’t come along very often in life.

He was the last patient of the day. I asked him his occupation, and he replied, “construction.” “Contracting? Heavy equipment?” “No, I supervise the concrete work on the new Narrows Bridge.”

Whoa. Cool!

Thirty minutes later–with the staff itching to go home–I finished picking his brain on what is a most amazing engineering feat of the last 30 years: the construction of a new bridge over the Tacoma Narrows. As he started to leave past the checkout desk, he turned and asked: “I’m giving a tour of the new bridge on Sunday. Interested in coming along?”

I considered the pros and cons, weighed the alternatives, and finished the complex decision-making process–nanoseconds later: “What time?” “9 A.M.” “See you there.”

What ensued was an experience you get once in a lifetime. And thanks to the wonder of weblogs, you get to share in it.

There are no public tours of the construction site of the new bridge–the environment is dangerous, and the engineers and work crew are obsessive about safety. Employees face immediate termination if they are on site without proper safety gear, or in riskier areas (such as outside of barriers or railings) without harnesses. As a testament to the rigorousness of the safety precautions, in over 2 years of construction, there have been only 2 injuries (a fractured wrist and a fractured ankle), and no mortalities. No one is allowed on site without hard hat, goggles, and safety vest.

My patient–we’ll call him Mike, although that’s not his real name–was giving a tour for the owner of the site concrete plant and several of his employees–five people initially, but two who were decidedly not interested in going up on the towers–and me, the odd man out. The tour, scheduled to take about 1 1/2 hours, ended up taking three. It flew by like just a few minutes. The weather was typical early May for the Pacific Northwest–mild, overcast, about 50 degrees, but fortunately with almost no wind.

There’s a lot to cover here, so I’m going to break this up into multiple posts, with lots of pictures. For those interested in the photography specifics, the photos were taken using a Panasonic DMC-FZ20, with a remarkable 12x optical zoom Leica Lumix lens and optical image stabilization. Wonderfully light, sturdy camera with one of the easiest user interfaces I’ve used. Images were tweaked a bit in Photoshop, mostly levels and contrast adjustment.

I would recommend my earlier post on the history of the first two bridges over the Narrows (“Galloping Gertie”, which collapsed in 1940, and the current span), which also covers some of the engineering challenges of bridging the Tacoma Narrows.

So put on your hard hat, observe all safety rules, and try to keep you acrophobia in check–we’re off to see the towers of the new Narrows bridge.

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Introduction

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