Photo by Christy Wolyniak
Senior Bridge Operator David Leask at his post.

Who sits in the tower?

Senior Ballard Bridge Operator, David Leask shares the view

By Christy Wolyniak

He has an office with one of the best views in Seattle. Senior Bridge Operator David Leask is one who knows the
ropes and the responsibility that comes with navigating the 2,854-foot Ballard Bridge.

Countless ships, commercial fishing crews including the Deadliest Catch’s king crab anglers and pleasure-seekers pass through the Lake Washington Ship Canal, communicating with the man, or woman in the tower who remains unseen.

When he was dodging between riggings and shipyards as a young boy, Ballard has long been home to Leask. His father was the Fremont Bridge Operator for 25 years- a highly competitive occupation today.

With a construction and carpentry background, Leask yearned for a consistent schedule and applied to jobs with the city. It took five years before coming on board as a bridge operator in 1987.

“The hardest part about this job is to do it smoothly. No matter what you do, you’re going to tick someone off. The Ballard Bridge is a little easier to work because there’s less pedestrian traffic and the traffic clears faster here than at some of the other bridges,” he said.

Video cameras allow Leask to watch for pedestrians on the sidewalk and traffic flow in order to time each opening for optimal safety. Leask will stop traffic, close all gates, and then begin the process of opening the bridge.

Eighteen employees operate Seattle’s four bascule bridges: Fremont, Ballard, University, and Spokane Street, which is a swing bridge. The central position, or ‘bascule' part of the Ballard Bridge opens like a drawbridge to allow ships taller than 44 feet to pass between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Upon each opening, the bridge splits into two vertical walls of roadway, opening a minimum of 30 degrees; the average opening takes four minutes. Leask holds vessels for up to 10 minutes to allow traffic to disperse, although marine traffic receives the right-of-way to vehicles according to federal law.

“You can’t screw up. Your job security is only as good as your health,” said Leask.

“Operators must be able to climb up and down a ladder, go by proper regulations, keep our wits about us and our sight – as long as I can do all of that I can stay employed.”

Rack-and-pinion gears drive the operation, as a heavy counterweight below nearly brushes the water while the bridge opens up above.

“It’s an impressive sight down below let alone having it come up right beside you
here,” said Leask.

Tight quarters make up the operator tower including a small bathroom unit. Operators warm up with a small heater in the winter and in the summer, try not to cook, as the tower quickly resembles a greenhouse.

“It’s just a tin box. We do have air conditioning, but there’s no insulation on the floors so the floors are cold in the winter,” said Leask.

The climb to get there is not for the faint of heart or height-shy. Ballard Bridge operators will ascend long flights of stairs, or ‘ladders’ that lead high across the Ship Canal to eventually meet the road, before climbing more stairs to reach the operator tower.

Ballard Bridge view
View of the ladders looking down. Photo by Christy Wolyniak

“You have to have a respect for heights and know where you’re at. There are lots of places we can’t go without having full fall protection,” said Leask, which includes rigging up in a harness and a hard hat.

In addition to braving heights, bridge operators like Leask work in isolation during their eight-hour shift. Regardless of weather, Leask will endure 32 degrees of wind and rain Monday through Thursday to grease the gears of the bridge and ensure everything runs smoothly before each opening.

“It’s a great job, but it’s not for everybody. Some people who have done it were too nervous. It’s good to have some nerves so you can pay attention, because you’ve got to do the same thing over and over again, but you have to make sure you do it right and don’t screw it up.” A statement a new trainee might hear from Leask as he ushers in four new operators for the South Park Bridge in coming weeks.

Never a dull moment, Leask will often sit and take in the beautiful Ballard views and wildlife through his windowed office.The bridge itself entices people in daredevil attempts, such as hiding in the girders to ride the bridge as it opens.

One moment in particular stands out in Leask’s mind when he saw a man on a Harley Davidson attempt to speed across the bridge right before it opened. He flipped over the top of the north leaf and landed on his bike on the south leaf, surviving his stunt unscathed aside from a broken ankle.

“It was one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen because it looked like a stunt man --like it was choreographed,” said Leask.

Perched above both water and land traffic, Leask hulls up in his tower that constantly trembles from cars passing by. Because of this, Leask continued reading on February 1, 2001 when his office began to shake a bit beyond the ordinary. He thought an unusually large Ness Crane was passing by on the bridge, only to
realize he was experiencing the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake.

“I didn’t know if I was going to live or die at that moment. I was quite shaken, I don’t want to be there again,” said Leask.

As Seattle is a hotspot for seismic activity, the city of Seattle has launched seismic retrofit projects; among them, the Ballard Bridge is taking on new forms of support. In spite of the possible dangers, Leask continues to operate the Ballard Bridge with precision and accuracy, affecting the lives of Seattleites.

For the most part, he enjoys keeping a low profile, and said of himself, “I don’t want to get in the news unless it’s my obituary.”

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