When mayor Jenny Durkan announced the closure of the West Seattle Bridge last month, it was one of the few—maybe the only—bits of non-coronavirus news to break through and grab everyone’s attention. The response, on social media and elsewhere, to that March 23 edict could best be summed up with a big, collective, “Now this, too?” It was almost too much to bear. Amid a pandemic that’s ravaging the city—economically, psychologically, existentially—the primary commuting option to and from West Seattle, which carries 107,000 cars a day, was suddenly off limits due to the discovery of cracked support girders, rendering the structure unsafe. Long after our Covid-19 troubles subside, the span will remain out of service as repairs resume. The Seattle Department of Transportation says it’ll be at least a year.
Imagine, though, if it was longer. Like six years? Because four decades ago, that’s how long Seattleites had to wait. In 1978 a freighter ship struck the span, then the Spokane Street Bridge, an eight-lane drawbridge (similar to the Fremont or Montlake bridges that still stand today). In the aftermath, one section of the drawbridge remained vertical, effectively cutting off half the state’s most traveled roadway. Commuters suffered traffic limbo until the damaged arterial’s replacement went up.
Meanwhile, another drama played out, one involving betrayal, deception, and murder, much of it tied to the bridge’s destruction.
Elliott Bay. June 11, 1978. 2:50am. Through the dark the freighter Antonio Chavez noses south along the bay, toward the mouth of the Duwamish River. Caught in the right light, the 550-foot ship is distinguishable by its black body, stretching nearly the length of two football fields. In its hold sits 20,000 tons of gypsum, picked up in Oakland, California, now bound for delivery at the Kaiser cement plant, just up the Duwamish.
Near the back of the ship, a tower that resembles a white office building houses the quarters for 38 crewmembers, freighter operations, and, at the very top, the ship’s bridge—the Chavez’s command center. Up there, feeling the hum of the entire ship move through his feet, up his legs, his chest, is 80-year-old Rolf Neslund, the oldest seafarer in the Puget Sound Pilots Association. Its members, like ship pilots all over the world, take control over from the captain once the vessels reach local waters. The pilots are completely, if temporarily, in charge; by state law, what they say goes.
Neslund boarded the Chavez hours earlier and guided it from the Pacific Ocean to Elliott Bay. Now comes the tricky work of conducting the 72-foot-wide freighter past tiny Harbor Island and through the 150-foot gap of the Duwamish River Waterway, a feat made all the more precarious by a number of docked ships and the narrow confines of Spokane Street Bridge, which is actually two spans, the north bridge and the south bridge, side by side, one for each direction of car traffic. Both draw up whenever it’s time for a ship to pass.
Rolf Neslund’s age is hardly the most notable thing about him. Born in Kongsberg, Norway, he ran away from home at age 12 by stowing aboard a ship bound for America. Authorities caught the minor in New York and sent him back. A year later he attempted it again, this time successfully. A few years into his second time in New York, he landed, at 16, a position as mess boy on the Ganges, a British merchant vessel. So began a 66-year career at sea, one that would put him in harm’s way again and again.
During World War I he survived a torpedo hit on the boat he served. A quarter of a century later, during the second World War, he captained the Andrea F. Luckenbach, a merchant ship carrying military munitions and part of a convoy bound for North Africa. On March 10, 1943, a German U-boat attacked the convoy, a torpedo striking Neslund’s ship on the portside, killing 10 armed guards. A second torpedo sent the rest of the crew overboard, and Andrea F. Luckenbach went down in seven minutes. A nearby ship rescued Neslund and his men.
Fast forward 35 years, and Neslund’s one of the most respected seamen in the Seattle region, where he moved after the war. His maritime prowess is only outpaced by his reputation with women. And that’s…complicated. Married, he had struck up an affair with his wife’s much younger sister, with whom he eventually had two sons. After divorce he didn’t marry the sister, but another woman, Ruth, 20 years his junior. In 1978, he and Ruth live in a sprawling, secluded house on Lopez Island, 70 miles northwest of the city.
Shortly after 2:5oam, as the Chavez approaches Spokane Street, the drawbridges lift. The signal that Neslund can proceed. Then a series of missed signals between Neslund and the ship’s permanent captain and crew members leads to the unthinkable. At 2:58 the Chavez slams into a support structure on the north bridge. Steel tears through the ship’s portside; splinters of wood and concrete rain down into the water below; the ship limps past the bridges and comes to a stop.
Seattleites wake up that morning to a city changed.
Oh, it’s hell. One arm of the north drawbridge, the damaged arm, stays stuck in the up position. Commuters must either brave the still functioning south bridge—now crammed with both eastbound and westbound traffic—or go as far as 20 miles out of their way. Authorities plead with citizens to carpool or take buses. They urge employers to vary office hours. Aerial shots show transit into the city—a spaghetti dish of elevated roads and off-ramps—snarled with bumper-to-bumper cars. The Alaska Way Viaduct, which connects to Spokane Street, gets the worst of it. One late afternoon a city traffic engineer tells The Seattle Times that vehicles headed home to West Seattle on the viaduct are backed up “damn near into town.”
Yet in some circles the accident is met with glee. A few high schoolers screenprint and sell T-shirts that read “Where were you when the ship hit the span?” Some locals even call, if facetiously, Rolf Neslund a hero.
After all, he destroyed what many, especially those living in West Seattle, wished had been torn down and replaced years earlier. A debate had raged forever about the traffic agony created by the bottleneck of the two ancient spans, built a few years apart in the 1920s. “His ship was able to do in a few seconds something the city hasn’t been able to do in years,” pens Seattle Times columnist Ross Anderson, because now city leaders are beginning to secure funds to replace the bridge. Unable to reach Neslund by phone two weeks after the accident, Anderson continues, “I wanted to ask if he knew he helped solve a problem that decades of official oratory, committee-forming and money-spending had only turned into a bigger problem.”
Since the span was damaged beyond repair, it qualified for a grant from the Office of Special Bridge Replacement, a federal infrastructure program. Regional leaders, especially Seattle council member Jeanette Williams and U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnusson, lobbied for the money, eventually bagging $110 million. An additional $80 million came from city, county, and state funds. It would take six years, but a bridge would once again connect two wings of the city.
Ruth Neslund said the accident destroyed her husband. The mishap, she explained, sent the proud sea captain and pilot into deep depression. Though port investigators didn’t press charges, they were unanimous in their belief the fault was all Rolf Neslund’s. He accepted early retirement, which meant he keep his monthly pension of $1,200 (the equivalent of $4,700 today).
“He put on a good show,” Ruth told The Seattle Times, “but he really was a broken man.” That was in April 1981, nearly three years after the Chavez smashed into the bridge. But the newspaper didn’t contact her to talk about the bridge. Reporters came calling to answer the question on the minds of the police, extended family, and friends at the Puget Sound Pilots association. Where was Rolf?
He’d been missing for eight months.
In the time since the accident the Neslunds toured the country in their RV. Rolf even squeezed in a trip back to Norway to visit family, where he attended the world speed skating championships. He regularly entertained friends at the house on Lopez Island.
Now Ruth couldn’t explain where he was. The theories she offered kept changing. At first she said her husband left Lopez on August 11, 1980, for another trip to Norway. Or had he taken up again with his ex-wife's sister, the former lover with whom he had two sons? Maybe he’d drowned after falling overboard on a ferry ride to Anacortes? When none of those leads turned up anything, Ruth insisted that, sadly, old Rolf must have succumbed to his remorse. Suicide by way of bridge-crash embarrassment.
It would take two more years before San Juan County charged Ruth with a crime, premeditated murder, and another two before the case went to trial. But when a jury finally did hear the story, in the fall of 1985, the details could make a stomach turn. The Neslunds, it emerged, had fought for years, sometimes violently and especially after drinking too much, only to make up the next morning. When Rolf retired, the drinking increased. Meanwhile, Ruth began squirreling away Rolf’s retirement money and, unbeknownst to him, was poised to put their house up for sale. When he discovered she’d pilfered his pension, they quarreled. What happened next isn’t entirely clear. But in a series of confessions to her family—her siblings and a niece—Ruth admitted to shooting Rolf in the head two times with a revolver. With the help of one her brothers, she used a butcher knife and ax to dismember the body, burned it in a barrel, and scattered the ashes on a manure pile behind the house.
Jurors spent four days reaching a verdict. Because no remains of Rolf were ever found, the prosecutor’s case wasn’t exactly a slam dunk. The clincher, a juror would later reveal, was a classified ad, offering the Lopez home up for sale, Ruth placed the day after she said her husband supposedly left for a routine trip to Norway. If he was coming back, the jurors mused, what to? Where would he live?
The jury found Ruth guilty and the judge sentenced her to life in prison. She died while an inmate at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor due to poor health in 1993. She insisted on her innocence until the end, swearing that Rolf Neslund, who stowed away on a ship bound for the U.S. at age 12 and survived of two world wars, took his own life because he’d ruined a bridge in a city 70 miles away.
Harbor Island. July 14, 1984. 1pm. People have gathered from all over the city, especially from West Seattle, for the dedication of their new lifeline. It soars 150 feet above the Duwamish and the little island. Music plays. City and county dignitaries gush about the achievement. One thousand balloons rise all at once like bubbles in a frosty glass of 7Up. Then a parade of cars and a motorcycle stunt team take to the span.
The West Seattle Bridge is finally complete. Unofficially opened weeks earlier, the new, six-lane arterial was making a difference. Already drivers saw at least 15 minutes shaved off their commute. Soon another, lower bridge would be added, after the remaining drawbridge is torn down, to serve the surface streets closer to West Seattle’s eastern shore. But it’s the “high” bridge that has the biggest impact. By 2000, some 95,000 cars cross it daily. Twenty years after that the number’s well over 100,000. Thirty-six years of commuting, with next to no problems, unless you count the age-old complaints about congestion. Because traffic congestion never stops. Until it does.
Here in 2020, in the middle of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, the bridge is shut down again. Cracked support girders make the span structurally unsafe. The irony is that social distancing efforts likely mean it would see a fraction of its normal traffic now anyway. The bridge’s future, like the city’s, is unclear. When it will open again, or when anything at all will return to normal, no one can say.