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Friday, August 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Paul Brendle, 'Mr. Traffic,' dies at 55

Seattle Times staff reporter

The man known as Mr. Traffic and the captain of commuters — credited as having so much influence he could create new traffic jams by rerouting drivers away from old ones — died Tuesday at age 55.

Paul W. Brendle II for years delivered the region's most popular morning traffic report for KIRO-AM (710) from his helicopter. He was famous for clever quips and tirades against the designers of the city's roadways, predicting the region's current traffic problems more than a decade ago.

He survived one emergency landing and three helicopter crashes, one of which left him with chronic back pain, family friends said.

The King County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that his death by carbon-monoxide poisoning was a suicide.

Mr. Brendle was found in his car in the parking lot of the Woodinville Library, said King County Sheriff's spokesman Greg Dymerski.

Mr. Brendle served in the Army in Vietnam and Korea and was awarded a Purple Heart, and he was first exposed to aviation while riding with helicopter pilots in Vietnam, according to a biography released by his family yesterday.

Born in Oak Harbor and a 1964 graduate of Mount Vernon High School, he had no broadcast experience in 1978, when he persuaded the KIRO program director to give him a chance.

He worked for the station until 1997.

Mr. Brendle claimed he could produce more lively and accurate traffic updates from his helicopter than competitors could from their fixed-wing planes.

"At first, they put him up just as the pilot," said former KIRO colleague Bill Yeend. "But then he would never shut up, and they figured there was no reason to have two people up there."

"He probably gave the most helpful traffic report we ever had," Yeend added.

Not everyone agreed.

"I remember laughing and being frustrated when I was listening to him on the ground," said Sara Johnson, a former competitor who now delivers traffic reports for KIRO.

"Paul was very funny, very clever and very quick-witted, but sometimes I just wanted him to tell me what the traffic was doing," she said.

In a magazine profile, Mr. Brendle was described as a bullet-headed ex-military brat, about 5-foot-8 and built like a high-school wrestling captain.

So widespread was his audience that when he recommended alternative routes to beat a traffic jam, it wasn't long before those routes started backing up as well. It was called the Brendle effect.

"He was traffic," said Rich Johnson, a news anchor in Portland and one of Mr. Brendle's best friends.

"And he took that power and responsibility very seriously. He was an advocate for traffic reform long before anybody else."

Mr. Brendle, a resident of Snohomish, was the owner of several local businesses, including a drywall company and Puget Sound Helicopters. Most recently, he had turned his interest in tropical fish into a business with Aquatic Manufacturing in Woodinville, which designs and makes aquariums. But it was his nearly 20-year career at KIRO that he loved best.

"It was an awesome responsibility," he said a month ago, in an interview about his relationship with commuters.

"For five years, the opening and closing of the reversible lanes on Interstate 90 was my responsibility. I'd say when to change them based on the backup in the Mount Baker tunnel."

Among his memorable nontraffic reports: the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, numerous Seafair hydroplane races, the sinking of the old Mercer Island Floating Bridge, and countless floods, fires and other breaking news stories.

He is survived by his wife, JoAnne; daughter Tonjia Brendle of Los Angeles; son Paul W. Brendle III of Woodinville; parents Paul W. and Polly Brendle of Kingston, Kitsap County, and Yuma, Ariz.; sister and brother-in-law Michele and Warren Walton of Bothell; father-in-law and mother-in-law John and Tillie Blake of Bellevue; sister-in-law and brother-in-law Jan and Warren Ochs of Bellingham; sister-in-law and brother-in-law Lisa and Bob Northey of Bellevue; and a niece and seven nephews.

There will be no public memorial service, but the family asks that remembrances and condolences be sent to the St. Thomas Church Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 1039, Medina, WA 98039.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com.

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