BY DON NELSON
Thousands of cars passed over the Skagit River bridge on Interstate 5 last Thursday (May 23), and remarkably only two of them (carrying a total of three people) went into the water when a portion of the bridge collapsed after it was nicked by a truck carrying an oversized load. Even more remarkably, nobody died.
Among the non-injured was me. Not that I consider myself especially lucky, but I also drove across the Skagit River bridge that day, about six hours before the truck took it down. In fact, I’ve driven across it probably hundreds of times, having worked in Skagit County for nearly five years and used the interstate for much longer than that.
Jacqui and I were having dinner with a friend in Seattle that evening and didn’t hear a thing about the bridge until I checked my work email, several hours after the incident, to find a statement from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray about the bridge collapse.
“What bridge collapse?” I said out loud.
And then the two of us, who as professional journalists have covered or directed the coverage of many cataclysmic events over our decades in the profession, were totally locked into the news cycle for the rest of the night (and the next several days).
Additionally, the story was breaking in the middle of my old journalistic turf, and was being covered quite well by my former colleagues at the Skagit Valley Herald. I can’t say I envied them.
The advantage of being familiar with the scene and circumstances of a news event is that you can fill in many of the blanks. The disadvantage is that you end up yelling at the TV set, radio or website when you hear or read something that is dreadfully inaccurate, or when you listen to reporters barking absurd questions at the governor during an impromptu press conference. (Did any of those people really expect the governor to tell them, right that minute, when the repairs would be done and how much they would cost? There’s good interviewing, and then there’s idiocy masquerading as tough questioning.)
So there I was, plotting detour work-arounds and arguing with the TV about the alternate routes that were being suggested. Not that my opinion meant all that much. Still, it was immediately evident to me that I should take the Highway 530/Darrington route back to the valley, a lovely drive that many valley residents use as a shortcut to “the coast.”
For a disaster, the Skagit River bridge collapse was relatively harmless to humans. Contrast that with the 13 deaths and 145 injured that resulted when an interstate highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007. That bridge had been rated “structurally deficient” by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The Minnesota catastrophe is particularly memorable to me for a couple of reasons. I lived in the Twin Cities for several years, was familiar with the bridge and have friends and family there.
The day the Minnesota bridge collapsed, some of my family – my brother and his wife, who live near Minneapolis – were visiting in Seattle. We were at a restaurant when news of the bridge disaster began to filter in. Our visitors were shocked and afraid for people they know who use that bridge daily. It was an anxious time as we followed the story online and on TV with unusual intensity.
Inevitably, that story and the Washington state story moved quickly into more discussions of how the nation’s infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. I’d like to think the Skagit River incident will be, as some observers predict, a “wake-up call” to start fixing things. But fixing things costs money, and we’ve become a miserably cheap-hearted nation when it comes to spending on things that matter and are for the common good, so I’m not optimistic. Another one will collapse, and another one, and it probably won’t matter to most people until it’s their unlucky day.