A man peers over the edge of the exposed bridge, looking into the water below. It’s a terrible scene, the aftermath of a 1957 Pontiac hardtop busting through the railing of the Warren Avenue Bridge and plunging into the Port Washington Narrows.
At the time, it was called one of the area’s “greatest tragedies” by the Bremerton Sun. On Dec. 14, 1958 — 57 years ago today — three young men fell to their deaths in that car, mere weeks after the Warren Avenue Bridge opened.
The bodies of Gary Lee Hill, 22, and Joseph E. Jenkins, Jr., 21, were recovered with the car right after it happened. But it would take almost a month more to locate the third, that of Gerald R. “Robbie” Clark, 20, who’d been driving the car.
Simply put, the crash shocked the community around the holidays in a newly made two-bridge town.
“The bridge had just opened, and everyone was regaling in it,” recalls Marlene Johnson Casmaer, a former Manette resident who was only about 10 at the time. “The Manette Bridge was kind of scary, and had a darkness to it. The new bridge was so modern looking, bright and airy.”
Only the new, $5 million bridge’s railings were clearly not made to withstand a car. Only a few years ago, the state installed concrete barriers to prevent that from happening. The bridge may be changed again soon to promote greater pedestrian access.
But mere weeks after the bridge first opened on Nov. 25, 1958, the three plunged to their deaths. There were allegations that drag racing preceded the crash. In any event, the incident also sparked an eerie quest to find Clark’s body to help bring about some closure, Johnson Casmaer said. Today, it reminds her of the movie “Stand by Me.”
“There’d be people looking all over the beach each day,” she said. “That’s what Bremerton became like. Who would be the first to find him?
“It was beyond devastating,” she said.
From the Bremerton Sun on Jan. 19, 1959, after Clark’s body was recovered:
“The body of the handsome lad, found Saturday afternoon on the beach of Port Washington narrows below Bay Bowl, was buried near his father who died only a year ago … Terry and Mike Chandler, 14- and 10-year-old sons of Mr. and Mrs. Dale Chandler, 1303 Magnuson Way, stumbled onto the body as they were playing … ‘I thought it was Robbie Clark’s body,’ Terry said, ‘so I ran up to the Bay Bowling alley and told them.'”
Sadly, the bridge has claimed many more lives over the years since those three. Mick McKinley, a retired Bremerton assistant fire chief, recalled one time when crews were training in a boat below the bridge. A man jumped from the span not far from their boat.
“We pulled him in under 20 seconds,” he said.
If you have more information or photographs from newspaper coverage of this tragedy, please send them my way and I will update this post.