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Terror On A Narrow Bridge Brings Back Dad's Pain

The tall ship Monogahela passes under the uncompleted Aurora Bridge circa 1931.
Library of Congress
The tall ship Monogahela passes under the uncompleted Aurora Bridge circa 1931.

When Mike Warren of Queen Anne turned on his TV Thursday, his gut tightened.

Four people had died in a collision on the Aurora Bridge beneath his house. Another 50 or so had been injured. They were international students enrolled at North Seattle College.

“I was going back through the craziness from when Jonathan died,” Warren said.

“When something like that happens, it violates the contract you think you have with the universe.”

Jonathan was Warren’s son. He was 17 when he died driving north to Ingraham High School in 1999. The wheels on Jonathan’s small car touched a dump truck’s wheels, sending him careening into oncoming traffic. He was T-boned by a pickup truck and died instantly.

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If you’ve driven across the Aurora Bridge, it’s not hard to imagine how that happened. Lanes on the Aurora Bridge are narrow – between 9 feet, 3 inches and 10 feet wide, depending on the report. (Lanes on Interstate 5, by contrast, are 12 feet wide.)

Space on the bridge is tight. There isn’t a shoulder or a median. The northbound and southbound lanes are divided simply by a yellow line.

Warren believed that if there had been a median, Jonathan would still be alive. Those students might still be alive, he said.

The students were riding in a tour bus when they were hit by a duck tour boat on wheels. The amphibious vehicle crossed several lanes on the bridge before crashing into the bus.

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What caused the crash remains unclear, and a team from the National Transportation Safety Board flew into Seattle on Friday to investigate. But Seattleites reacted swiftly, telling stories on social media of how they white-knuckle their way across that bridge. Many said they avoid the center lanes for fear of oncoming traffic. One man said his outside mirrors have been lopped off three times on the bridge.

After Jonathan died, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson of Seattle vowed to make the bridge safe. For years, they worked on this puzzle.

“I remember being in meetings where we would watch videos to see driving patterns, how close cars were getting to the yellow line,” Kohl-Welles said. “We worked very hard. It was a huge, huge effort.”

They came out with a report in 2003 with several options: Widen the lanes, add a median, remove the sidewalks. It was tricky, because the bridge, née the George Washington Memorial Bridge in 1932, was constructed in a way that it could not be expanded.


A graphic from the Federal Highway Administration shows guidelines for lane widths on roads and highways:

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "120970", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201509/bridewidthstory.png", "attribution": "Credit Federal Highway Administration"}]] 

Little came of the report; Kohl-Welles said that’s because there isn’t enough money for transportation projects.

“We’re not putting the funding into our state transportation sufficiently to deal with our aging infrastructure,” she said. “It’s not just solely the Aurora Bridge. It’s bridges all over our state. We really have to deal with this.” 

Seattle transportation officials know that stretch of highway is dangerous. The Seattle Department of Transportation came up with a low-cost plan to make it safer – mostly by pleading with drivers to slow down. The speed limit on the bridge is 40 miles an hour.

Kohl-Welles is leaving the state Senate in a bid for the King County Council. She said that if she is elected, she’ll see what changes could be made at the county level.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "120967", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201509/bridgefeedback3.JPG", "attribution": ""}]]  

Warren, 72, said he will pick up the fight again to make the bridge safe. After all, the families of the students who died won’t be able to, as they live too far away.

On Friday, Warren was at Harborview Medical Center tending to his wife who was undergoing a procedure. In the next room over was an 18-year-old Vietnamese student who had been in the crash.

“That’s the same age as Jonathan,” he said. “A young Asian woman. He was a young Asian man. They’re teenagers. My God. The failure to deal with the issue means that people die.” 

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