By Rick Lund
Seattle Times news designer
It was shaping up to be another routine commute home. That is, if you can call the 56-mile-each-way commute between south Mount Vernon and Seattle I’ve been doing now for more than two decades ordinary.
But as I got off the Sound Transit bus in Everett and hopped in my truck to drive the remaining 30 miles, I received a call from Times night editor Cathy McLain that would make this evening anything but ordinary.
“The Skagit River Bridge between Mount Vernon and Burlington has fallen in the river,” said the voice on my cell phone. “How soon can you get there?”
I struggled for a few seconds to wrap my mind around that. How can that happen? I had crossed that bridge hundreds of time in my life. And my mind raced about the real possibility of unimaginable loss of human life. Perhaps even someone I knew. I told her I’d get there as soon as I could.
I sped on, looking for the first signs of backup on I-5. Knowing the lay of the land, I got off at the Anderson Road exit, just south of when traffic lurched to a standstill. I snaked through downtown Mount Vernon and on to Freeway Drive, which parallels I-5, to get to WalMart, where I knew I could get close to the bridge. It was about 8 p.m., a little less than an hour after the collapse.
As I walked up to the dike that borders the south bank of the river I saw a sight that made my jaw drop: The north end of the bridge, a mass of twisted steel , was submerged in the river. Rescue boats were humming around some vehicles. As this point I couldn’t tell how many. I snapped a couple shots with my iPhone, e-mailed them to the newsroom, and called my editor.
When I got off the phone I heard a big cheer from the hundreds of people lined along the north dike. A rescue boat had delivered what appeared to be a survivor to safety. I knew at this point I had to get to the north side of the river. The only camera I had was my iPhone. I had no telephoto lens. I had recently taken a newsroom training course from Genevieve Alvarez, our videographer, who taught me to “zoom with your feet.” I had to move. Going back to my truck and driving there was not an option. It would have taken too long. So I walked east along the dike to the Riverside Bridge, walked across the bridge and circled back to the collapsed bridge on the north dike.
As helicopters circled overhead, I walked toward the wreckage, snapping more photos. Police tape kept the crowds from the rescue scene, but I was let through as media.
My editor wanted me to get some information, and perhaps interview survivors. But the last of the survivors had already been transported to the hospital. I talked to a Skagit County sheriff’s deputy, who told me two vehicles were in the water, and three survivors had been pulled from the river. I fed that information back to reporter Brian Rosenthal, who was back in the office writing the story.
I shot more photos, including one from the east side of the wreckage as the sun was beginning to set. Then I looked up at the north end of the bridge that had separated. If only I could get up on that deck, I thought, I could take a more dramatic photo looking across the abyss, and down on the wreckage. But how could I get there? That would be the least of my challenges.
I stared up at a steep embankment leading to the bridge deck. Police were stationed at the edge of the bridge and north of the bridge, but not where I saw I might be able to climb.
“This is crazy,” I thought to myself, “but I’m going to do it.” I scrambled over blackberry bushes and wiggled through a barbed-wire fence and literally crawled onto the bridge deck. Immediately, two officers began walking briskly toward me with menacing looks.
“I’m from The Seattle Times,” I told them, “and I really need to get on this ledge and shoot a photo for our paper.”
One officer asked, “How did you get up here so quickly?” “You don’t want to know,” I thought to myself.
One then told me: “you have 15 seconds.”
I stepped within two feet of the edge of the bridge and took three photos looking south to the other side. I thanked them, and I was out of there.
Two of the three photos were in focus, and I sent them in. Working my way back to the river’s bank I got some more information on the rescues. The police spokesperson said it “was way too early” to determine a cause of the collapse. Not satisifed with that answer, I managed to corner a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol, who confirmed the rumors I’d been hearing: A semi-truck with an oversized load had struck the bridge and brought it down. He said the truck was parked on the south side, and officials were questioning the driver.
It was now getting dark. By this time, two of our reporters, Steve Miletich and Alexa Vaughn, were on the scene, as well as photographers Dean Rutz and Alan Berner.
With my iPhone battery nearly depleted, I decided to call it a night. But not before my colleagues back at work were sending me emails that some of my photos had been picked up by other news outlets, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
At the end of the day, I felt very fortunate to be the first Seattle Times staffer on the scene. I was relieved I was not covering a story that could have been much more tragic than it was. That only two vehicles fell from the bridge into the water, with no loss of life, was truly a miracle.