December 25, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 52

Dr. Wes

Big Bertha is stuck between a rock and a hard place

by: Dr. Wes Browning

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Merry Christmas, Happy New Years, Joyous Minority Holidays, and Pleasant Days Off if you’re employed and so situated!

OK, with that out of the way, what do you suppose has been blocking Bertha?

Bertha, Seattle’s great big Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM), got stuck Dec. 6 while digging the tunnel to replace the viaduct, after encountering something that, as I write this, is being referred to by engineers on the project as “the object.” What’s really happening here? No one yet knows, so it falls to me to make answers up.

My first guess is a kind of philosophical or spiritual guess. I suppose that Bertha’s difficulties are ultimately related to karma. It’s what we get for naming the city after Chief Seattle, who specifically said don’t do it, creating a waterfront on tidelands in the first place and ending the Ride Free Zone. No free rides for the poor —  no free ride for Bertha, karma says.

Does the actual nature of the physical obstruction matter, really? Isn’t what really matters that we just blindly rammed a 57.5-foot-wide cutting churning-hell grinder cleverly disguised by a woman’s name, and we’re surprised it got stuck 1,000 feet in? How dare nature get in the way of our drilling holes through it?

There are a number of scary facts about this. I, for one, thought I was fairly well informed about how the tunnel project worked. But I find I had overlooked a key aspect of the procedure. It turns out that in order to keep the ground above the TBM from collapsing into the newly dug hole, which would be bad since there are buildings built on said ground, and people working in them, the tunnel boring is done under pressure. This complicates things a bit, because it means workers sent in to put human eyes on the cause of the obstruction need to be prepared for the pressure, and then go through depressurization. What a pain.

Or, they can turn off the pressurization, and risk tunnel collapse. Well, no, that can’t be allowed, so they have to get the tunnel shored up first. With two-by-fours or something. Apparently. I may be wrong about the science of it. But I am certainly glad the thing didn’t get stuck too close to the Real Change building. I hear it’s at least half a block away from us. Whew! Can you say “Someone else’s problem?” I can! Yay!

But, back to making up what is blocking Bertha. My immediate thought was that nothing rigid could stop the Bertha-monster, she’s a big, bad cutting machine, so it has to be something that bends or takes a nudge but won’t snap. It has to be something that is being pushed in front of the machine or around it, rather than being cut by it.

Engineers say that could be an “erratic glacial rock” left down there when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated. Just a medium-sized to largish glacial rock that ran off from its mommy and daddy and brothers and sisters and got stranded randomly on the shore of Seattle 200 or so giant subduction earthquakes ago.

I don’t know. “Erratic?”  Couldn’t we say “capricious”? “Whimsical”? How about “eccentric”?

Maybe it was the spirit rock of Ivar Haglund, channeled throughout his life. Maybe before that, it was the spirit rock of Doc Maynard, or Chief Seattle himself.

If it does turn out to be an erratic glacial rock, I think we should call her Louie, she of “Me gotta go.” If my theory is right, Louie is rocking in place to the nudges of the TBM, which means she wants to go, too. Oh, the erratic (or capricious, whimsical, or eccentric) rock is a restless rock. A restless rock that needs to wander. And Seattle was born the next of kin — the next of kin, to the erratic (or capricious, whimsical, or eccentric) rock.



Really like your reference to wayward winds, not to mention your sarcasm/irony My hubby [the civil engineer] is explaining to me what it might be in real like I think it is an undergraound fairy mound

Mary | submitted on 12/26/2013, 2:41pm

Is that Lou-ee or Lou-eye? Me gotta know, now.

Jack Large | submitted on 12/30/2013, 11:19pm

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