It was bad luck that got Lorraine Tetreault of Bremerton over the Tacoma Narrows on Friday afternoon while hundreds of drivers sat stopped in a miles-long backup.
She slipped in the snow and broke her wrist in two places Wednesday, and her type of medical emergency was the only reason State Patrol troopers let anyone cross the bridges during a more than six-hour closure caused by sheets of falling ice.
“They let me over the bridge, I got to the medical center, and they were able to reset my bones,” the 60-year-old Bremerton woman said Friday evening. “Now I’m trying to get home.”
Traffic on state Route 16 between Tacoma and Gig Harbor was stopped all afternoon because of the danger posed by sheets and shards of melting ice breaking free from the girders and suspension cables and plummeting into traffic lanes, troopers and state Department of Transportation officials said.
Caught in the backup were passengers needing to catch flights at Sea-Tac Airport; UPS and FedEx drivers with loads of packages; workers headed to or from their jobs; people leaving snowbound homes for a respite from cabin fever; and all manner of other drivers.
The closing of the Narrows bridges is rare. A windstorm forced a traffic halt in 2008; a snow-and-ice storm prompted a safety shutdown of the two-way Narrows Bridge in 1996.
The newer bridge – opened in 2007 – hadn’t been through a storm like this until Friday.
The westbound and eastbound spans were shut down around noon Friday; the center lanes of both spans reopened shortly after 6:30 p.m. And traffic was slow-going along the corridor that carries about 79,000 cars a day.
The State Patrol closed the bridges after receiving several reports from drivers who dodged chunks of ice on their way across, trooper Guy Gill said.
One reported that a piece about 8 feet long had come down.
“We are going to err on the side of caution,” Gill said. “There is just so much ice built up on the bridge. It is coming apart in huge pieces, and it can cause some serious damage.”
Out on the bridges, DOT crews kept watch “waiting for the trouble spots to clear out,” spokeswoman Kelly Stowe said. They didn’t scale the spans or apply de-icer; they monitored possible damage and potential danger as ice sheared away from cables and towers.
Meantime, drivers were stranded on both sides of the Narrows. Many sat in idling cars, their engines running and heaters blasting for warmth. The backups stretched for miles, and drivers headed to or from work – or just venturing out of snowbound homes – were frustrated and hungry for information.
On the Gig Harbor side, it was State Patrol Sgt. Patrick Pronovost’s job to deliver unwelcome news. He stood in the chill, rain dripping off his hat and onto his yellow slicker, dipped his head into drivers’ windows and urged them to turn around.
“It will be a minimum of another two hours,” he told drivers approaching the westbound bridge around 2:30 p.m. DOT crews, he added, discovered some 2 inches of ice “all over up there” on the bridges, and crossing wasn’t safe.
When he leaned into Tetreault’s car, he saw her left hand, swathed in Ace bandages and gingerly resting on a cushion. She produced X-rays for her ticket across to the Group Health facility in Tacoma.
“It’s pretty scary, when you’ve got broken bones and you’re afraid of what’s going to happen,” she said. They drove across the eastbound bridge in the center lane at 35 mph. “Nice and slow,” she said.
David Morey of Bonney Lake sat in the big rig he drives for Sierra Forest Products, waiting out the closure.
“You know if they’ve got it closed, it’s for the right reason. When I came across at 10:30, there was ice falling all over the roadway,” he said of his morning trip to Poulsbo from Kent.
He saw “notebook-sized” sheets of ice and numerous smaller chunks falling from the superstructure and suspension cables, Morey said.
“I’m headed back to Kent and then home to no power in Bonney Lake,” he added.
But for a handful of large trucks, the eastbound bridge approach was eerily deserted. Troopers worked to get drivers off the highway and turn them around farther back on the line before the toll lanes, Pronovost said. They especially wanted to avoid having frustrated drivers clog the roads in Gig Harbor.
Across the Narrows, traffic backed up for blocks midafternoon at North Jackson Avenue, the last exit before the bridge. Cars waited in the center turn lane and fanned out to side streets.
Cort Viert, 23, of Tacoma watched YouTube videos on his phone as he idled in his car off Jackson. He was on his way to an appointment in Gig Harbor and already had been delayed two hours.
“I’m just going to sit here and wait,” he said about 2:30 p.m.
Tom Brown, 47, also used a smartphone for entertainment as he waited a few blocks away. He watched an action movie.
Brown lives in Gig Harbor and was trying to get home after a shift at Madigan Army Medical Center, where he’s a physician. He said he weighed alternate routes – drive around through Olympia and Shelton, or catch a ferry in Seattle – but figured it would be faster to wait.
“I’ll get home one way or another,” he said.
Staff writers Stacey Mulick and Sara Schilling and Peninsula Gateway staff writer Susan Schell contributed to this report.