November 7, 2011 - Suspension Bridge Collapses

One morning (November 7, 1940, to be exact) the Tacoma (Washington) Narrows Suspension Bridge began to sway in a 40 mph (65 kph) wind.

This slender, graceful bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at the time, had only been open to traffic for four months.

A newspaper editor named Leonard Coatsworth was driving over the bridge when the swaying became so violent that he lost control of the car. He jammed on his brakes and tried to get out. He was flung to the ground, and his face hit a curb. Hearing concrete cracking all around him, Coatsworth couldn't get onto his feet—so he crawled desperately back toward the toll plaza.

He thought he was a goner.

Fortunately, Coatsworth was able to crawl about 500 yards to the towers. He was gasping for breath, and his knees and hands were raw and bleeding. He finally was able to get to his feet and run—although he had to start-and-stop with the swaying—and he finally made it to safety.

Unfortunately, Coatsworth had been taking his daughter's black cocker spaniel back to her house when this happened, and the terrified dog didn't follow him to safety. There was a lull in the wind, and two other men—an engineering professor and a news photographer—risked their lives trying to rescue the dog. However, the dog still refused to leave the car, and in its terror, it even bit one of his would-be rescuers. The bridge began to sway violently again, and the two men lurched back to safety without the dog.

Several people filmed the disaster with motion picture cameras, and as Coatsworth and others watched, the bridge broke apart, and bridge and car fell into the water. The dog's body was never recovered. No human life was lost.

Because it happened more than 50 years ago, it seems crazy that we have great film on the collapse of the bridge, but we do—in color!—and here it is.

Engineers learned from the bridge's collapse and were able to make later bridges safer. Try your hand at bridge engineering on this Nova website—where you will find info and a bridge-building game! 

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