Drivers were still waiting on state Route 16 and on various side streets to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridges late this afternoon, hours after Washington State Patrol troopers closed both spans because of large ice chunks falling onto the bridge deck.
On the Gig Harbor side, Richard Heistand was heading to St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma to pick up his girlfriend who had just gone through surgery when his trip was delayed.
Several Bremerton Kitsap Airporter buses were also among the vehicles held up in traffic, causing passengers to miss their flights out of Sea-Tac Airport.
“I’ll miss my flight but I’ll be able to take another one,” passenger Darrell Fields said as he stepped off the bus to get some fresh air while the Airporter sat on the freeway.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m., State Patrol Sgt. Patrick Pronovost was stopping drivers on the Gig Harbor side of the bridge and warning them that the bridge will be closed for another two hours.
And that is a minimum, said Pronovost, dressed in a fluorescent rain slicker and leaning into cars as they pulled up on the 24th Street on-ramp.
Transportation crews did an assessment and found two inches of thick ice all over the upper reaches of the bridges.
In the mean time, there are no good travel alternatives between Gig Harbor and Tacoma.
Drivers headed to Gig Harbor and points west from Tacoma need to take Interstate 5 south to Olympia, catch U.S. 101 to Shelton where they can take state Route 3 back toward Bremerton and eventually hit state Route 16 eastbound to the Harbor.
Otherwise, drivers can drive to Seattle and try to catch the Seattle-to-Bremerton ferry. They can pick up SR 16 eastbound in Bremerton.
It’s a long trip either way.
On the Tacoma side of the bridge, many people weren’t willing to take the detours – at least not yet. Traffic was backed up for blocks 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 You Tube 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 at about 2:30 p.m.
Tom Brown, 47, also used a smart phone 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 but figured it would be faster to wait.
“I’ll get home one way or another,” he said.
Johann VanVeelen, 69, of Port Townsend, had come into Tacoma to pick up a trailer. He sat in his truck on a side street off Jackson about 3:15 p.m., with the trailer hitched to the back.
He was thinking about the road trip he plans to take with the trailer – once he finally gets home.
He’ll head “down south, where it’s warm,” he said, as rain fell outside.
The State Patrol decided to close the bridges shortly before noon after receiving several reports from drivers whose cars had been hit or nearly hit by large pieces of falling ice, trooper Guy Gill said.
One caller reported that a ice chunk about eight feet long had come down.
Even though no injuries have been reported, troopers decided to close the bridges.
“We are just not going to take the chance,” Gill said. “We are going to err on the side of caution.”
“There is just so much ice built up on the bridge,” Gill said. “It is coming apart in huge pieces and it can cause some serious damage.”
The westbound Narrows Bridge was last closed for ice on Dec. 27, 1996. It was closed for wind in November 2008.
“This is highly unusual,” said Troy Cowan, regional maintenance manager for WSDOT. “But nothing about this storm has been typical.”