June 26, 2005
Drawn to solitude
Special to The Seattle Times
GARY SETTLE / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
"It's a pretty laid-back job, but sometimes it hits the fan," says David Leask, whose "office" is the tower perched just south of midspan on the east side of the Ballard Bridge.
In the eight years he's been the day-shift bridge operator, Leask has adapted to the constant body-vibrating trembling of the structure as cars and especially heavy trucks rumble across.
But as he sat in his chair at 10:54 a.m. on Feb. 28, 2001, he felt a heavier-than usual shaking.
For about 10 seconds, he thought a truck hauling a huge Ness crane was crossing.
Then he stood up and saw no big vehicles on the bridge.
It was the Nisqually earthquake.
For what seemed like an eternity, the tower vibrated, and the bridge's several tall metal lampposts swayed like sunflowers in a stiff breeze.
Fearing for his life, Leask opened the door in case the tower fell into the water far below, then crawled underneath his old wooden desk to wait for the magnitude-6.8 quake to end. If every day was as emotionally charged as that one, Joann McGovern, who supervises Seattle's 18 bridge operators, might have difficulty recruiting people for the job.
But most days, if not exactly quiet or stress-free, are pretty predictable.
The views are great, and the pay is pretty good, at just over $20 an hour.
As a result, McGovern has no trouble filling the few positions that come open.
A lot of working solo
She says she looks for people who have a background working with heavy machinery or electricity, who don't mind being alone for long stretches, and are self-starters.
"It's a good job if you don't mind being by yourself for eight hours," McGovern says.
"We've had some people who couldn't take it because they need more social interaction," she says.
Most operators, she explains, "tend to be a little bit reclusive I'm not sure that's the right word. They're not big talkers."
Leask, however, is affable and loquacious.
Born and raised in North Seattle, Leask, 46, is a second-generation bridge operator. His father was stationed on the Fremont Bridge for 25 years.
Between the two of them, they have opened and closed Seattle drawbridges thousands of times.
"Everything is about safety," Leask says.
"The number one thing is not to open the bridge when someone is on it."
Occasionally that's a challenge. Pedestrians, he says, have attempted to ride the Fremont Bridge up as it opens, or at the last second have tried to run across and leap the gap to the other side.
"Fremont," Leask says, "is a place you can see odd things, if you're a bridge operator or not."
But the topper, he says, happened a few years ago in Ballard, when a burly guy on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle decided he didn't want to wait for the bridge to go through its standard five-minute opening cycle.
Just before it began to open, the man squeezed his motorcycle past the road gate and accelerated, only to slam on the brakes when he saw something was wrong.
A 5-foot wall had formed at midspan because the other half of the drawbridge had risen at a faster rate.
The man's bike plowed into it, the impact somersaulting him up and onto the other half of the bridge, where he landed in a sitting position, as if choreographed by a Hollywood stunt team.
Leask was amazed the guy survived, suffering only a broken ankle.
Most bridge openings, though, are routine and problem-free, as was the case one recent morning when an air horn from a sailboat one long blast followed by a short one requested an opening.
Leask replied with five short blasts, which meant he would open the bridge, but not immediately.
The vessel idled in place.
Leask then scanned east and west down the Lake Washington Ship Canal, looking for other vessels that might require passage (the bridge has 44 feet of clearance). If he'd seen any, he would have waited until they arrived.
Then he glanced north and south along 15th Avenue Northwest to check auto and pedestrian traffic.
If an emergency vehicle were approaching, he would have waited until it crossed.
After graduating from Ingraham High School, Leask tried his hand at carpentry and cabinetmaking.
But his father wanted him to find a more secure job with benefits, and kept bringing him applications for city jobs. He started applying for bridge-operator openings in 1982 but didn't land a position for another five years.
Leask stood before the computerized green control console, about the width of a digital keyboard, with an array of red, blue, green, and black buttons and handles.
He pressed a sequence of 12 buttons, which controlled the four gates that block auto and pedestrian traffic, activated warning lights and engaged motors that rotate the rack-and-pinion gears that move the great beast up and down.
Position of power
Bridge operators wield significant power, controlling the fates of hundreds of people with each opening.
The four drawbridges in Seattle Montlake (operated by the state now), University, Fremont and Ballard were built in the early 20th century.
Leask is keenly aware of the responsibility.
"There are a lot of eyes watching you," he says.
Adds McGovern: "You think it's easy until you get up there and see a big ship coming right at you and cars and pedestrians that have to be stopped. There are so many things that could go wrong. It can be very difficult and very stressful."
When the boat was safely through, Leask reversed the procedure to lower the "bascule" bridge.
Bascule, French for "seesaw," describes the action of each half of the bridge during an opening.
A ballast of concrete counterbalances the weight of the bridge, so little energy is required to raise and lower each half.
On a recent Monday morning, Leask opened the bridge about once every 30 to 40 minutes, but that can vary a lot depending on the time of year.
When commercial-fishing seasons start up, there's more vessel traffic, and on summer weekends pleasure boaters flock to and from Puget Sound.
Greasing the gears
In general, openings have decreased markedly from a decade ago by about 50 percent, says McGovern.
She suspects that has to do with boaters switching to motor vessels from high-masted sailboats that often can't clear the drawbridges' varying heights above the water, and with the addition of more saltwater marinas for people to store their boats.
Between openings, Leask finds time to read the newspaper and make out reports on his desk computer.
He also spends one day a week greasing gears and attending to the machinery that actuates the bridge.
It's a job that requires tenders to sometimes work weekends and holiday shifts, too.
Occasionally he'll admire the tower's panoramic, 270-degree view of the docks, ships, and boatyards along the canal, and of the low hill upon which Ballard sits.
Sometimes he'll spot an eagle, heron or hawk floating in the sky.
But mostly he just tries to keep a low profile in his high perch, waiting for the air-horn signals of sailboats or the radio communication that commercial vessels use, operating the bridge with the precision of a computer, keeping boaters, drivers and pedestrians safe.
Leask knows he's done his job well when nobody even notices he's up there.
"I used to say, 'I don't want to get into the news, except for my obituary.' "
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