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Last published at August 7, 2009 at 2:02 AM

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Fremont's bridgetenders juggle vessels and vehicles

Get the inside story from bridgetenders on one of Seattle's iconic drawbridges, the Fremont Bridge.

Special to The Seattle Times

Bridging the gap

THE FREMONT BRIDGE has been tirelessly raising and lowering since it opened on June 15, 1917. Check out its history at www.historylink.org.

Bridge facts: Seattle's Fremont, Ballard and University bridges don't open during weekday rush hours, 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Exceptions are for federal holidays; emergencies; boats towing a vessel exceeding 1,000 gross tons; or vessels of more than 1,000 gross tons.

To learn more: For information on the Fremont Bridge and the 148 other bridges the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) oversees, call 206-386-4208. For more on the federal laws governing bridge operation and boaters' responsibilities, visit SDOT's Web site, www.seattle.gov/transportation/bridges.htm. or the 13th Coast Guard District's site, www.uscg.mil/d13.

Art project: The Fremont Bridge public art project asks people to share their ideas, memories, and stories of the bridge with artist Kristen Ramirez. Call 206-455-9983 and record your message. Follow Ramirez's bridge adventures on her blog: http://thebridgereport.blogspot.com.

A day in the life

A bridgetender's job includes overseeing traffic, and it doesn't always go according to plan. Patty Perry recalls one of her most bizarre encounters: "I was in the Ballard Bridge tower with crews working on the bridge. I hit the warning bell, lowered my gates and this pedestrian came up — I'm not sure what kind of problem he was having — and boom, he kicked the pedestrian gate down. I can't open without it so the work crew stood there as my gate. It was strange, to say the least."

Mistake number one: He's under sail, not using the motor. Mistake number two: He hasn't requested an opening, and the mast looks a tad too tall for the Fremont Bridge's 30-foot clearance.

Longtime bridge operators Patty Perry and Joe Grande stand with me, the startled visitor, staring out the bridge tower as the boat slips beneath the deck.

"I think he's stuck," I say. "He's not coming out."

"That's one of the reasons you're required to use auxiliary power," Grande says calmly. "You lose wind under the bridge."

Perry checks her camera angles that monitor bridge decks and approaches. "There he is," she says. Sure enough, the sailboat emerges, intact and backing out, not attempting the crossing after all.

Just another hair-raising day in the southeast tower of the blue and orange Fremont Bridge, Seattle's busiest — and one of the busiest bascule bridges in the world. (Dictionary definition of bascule is "a device or structure, such as a drawbridge, counterbalanced so that when one end is lowered the other is raised." Also French for "seesaw.")

Meanwhile, in the northwest tower, artist-in-residence Kristen Ramirez has been at work, as explained on her blog: "Using the tower as a studio ... a platform from which to observe the bridge, and a base from which to interact with the public, I will create art!"

Her observations might include the hard work of bridge operators like Perry (more than 20 years in the towers) and Grande (10 years), who daily juggle the competing demands of vehicular and vessel traffic. I visited on a Friday afternoon, noting that the tower includes a small bathroom, a bit of a kitchen, a staircase, and at the top, gorgeous views west to the Ballard Bridge and east to Lake Union. Here's my Q&A session with the bridgetenders:

Q: How often do you get smacked by boats?

P.P.: Very seldom actually, although a sailboat did tap the structure last week when I was gone on vacation. He thought he would clear but he was about three inches too tall.

J.G.: I was on duty when a boat lost a mast once during Seafair. You can imagine why. I watched him coming and thought, where's the horn, where's the horn? We had to call the Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard to report the accident. People need to understand that it's not our job to know their clearance. Our job is to open the bridge when a request is made.

P.P.: People call the tower and ask me, do you think I'm going to clear?

Q: What do you say?

P.P.: I tell them you have to make that judgment yourself. Most know their clearance. When the bridge is up, there's 78 feet between decks. Plenty of room.

J.G.: We never refuse a request for an opening. We can hold them for 10 minutes to clear traffic off the bridge but vessels have the right of way. There are federal laws that we have to follow.

Q: How do boats let you know they want an opening?

P.P.: They whistle one long and one short, and I respond with one long and short. If I can't open immediately, I signal with five short, which means I know you're there, stand by. Commercial traffic uses marine channel 13 to ask for an opening. Boats can also call the tower. There are signs on the bridge with the number.

Q: How do you balance the needs of the cars with the needs of the boats?

J.G.: It's coordination. We don't want to play yo-yo with the bridge and we really are mindful of the guy in the car stuck in traffic. Most openings take only six minutes, and in another six, traffic is back to normal. People call to say they've been stuck for 20 minutes but that's not just because of an opening.

P.P.: We don't open during rush hours: 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. By 6 p.m., the boats are stacked up pretty good.

Q: How do you clear the bridge of traffic?

P.P.: There's the warning bell.

J.G.: It's a train bell, like at a train crossing. I heard that someone recorded it and created a loop.

Q: Yeah, it's a sound that strikes fear in every driver's heart.

P.P.: I close the oncoming gate to stop traffic, keeping the off-going gate open so cars can drive off. Then I close that one. I check everything, using the cameras, especially my blind spot — the inside curb in front of the tower. I go outside the tower and look around.

Q: There's an urban myth that an elderly woman got stuck on the bridge and had to hold on until it went down. Ever hear that one?

J.G.: No, but the college kids used to try to ride the bridge. They don't do it anymore.

Q: Who's the worst for blowing through lights and gates?

P.P.: I think bicycles run the bridge the most, and a few pedestrians will just go under the gates. We hit the "don't walk" sign and you can see the bikers speed up: "I can make it!"

Q: Pet peeves?

P.P.: Sailboats that sit out by the Aurora Bridge until the bridge is up. They're too chicken to approach. I like boats that signal at the Aurora Bridge, maintain seven knots, and the bridge is up when they get here. We do a dance and they just sail through. I miss the old days, when we operated the bridges manually.

J.G.: They just rehabbed the bridges. Fremont has all new machinery now.

Q: And this control board does the work.

P.P.: We used to be the brains. We'd bring the bridge up and then let the wind and gravity do the job. That was a dance. It was fun.

Q: It still looks like fun, and a lot of work.

P.P.: I see every opening as job security.

Connie McDougall is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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