Fifty years ago, on a hot summer afternoon in Vancouver, eighteen men died and my family’s lives changed forever. On June 17, 1958 the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed – seventeen ironworkers and one engineer died in the wreckage. Our father, a civil engineer with Dominion Bridge, was almost immediately placed in charge of the salvage and eventual rebuild. I was eight years old, my sister five and my brothers were still toddlers.
One of Dad’s first tasks was to don a “hard-hat” diving suit and go down to survey the wreckage underwater. It nearly killed him – first, he was claustrophobic and second, not all of the bodies had been recovered – they were tangled and broken in the wreckage. He came home that night and just lay on the couch, not seeing anyone and not speaking. He went back the next day and did it again. And the day after that. Because he had to.
We were told “Don’t tell Grandpa about the bridge.” Grandpa was 71 years old and in Shaughnessy Hospital recovering from a heart attack. He was an ironworker and many of the men who died were his friends. He knew anyway. He died not quite a year later, still mourning his friends.
The Bridge became the focus of our lives. Dad was on the site every day supervising the salvage effort. He had to give evidence at the inquest which followed. He had to help rebuild The Bridge and the lives of the survivors.
We became the children of the bridge. Sunday drives were not to the park or a picnic, we were piled into the car and we drove to The Bridge. On the way, we would drive down Boundary Road, past the Dominion Bridge yards (now The Bridge Studios) and compete to see who would spot “red iron” first. Once at The Bridge, we would walk out to the office and look at the blueprints, look at the new girders and walk the high steel. I fed the seagulls with bread from Mr. Baribal’s lunch. I met the legendary “High” Carpenter. One particularly vivid memory is of sitting close to the “end of steel” and watching the Red Knight, in his T-33 jet, practice aerobatic maneuvers – once looping through the unfinished arches of the south span. I don’t think he was supposed to do that.
In August, 1960 The Bridge was complete and to mark the day, Mom had a pair of cufflinks made for Dad, engraved with a picture of The Bridge. He wore them proudly and, I think, with much sadness. The inquiry into the collapse had determined that human error was the cause – a mistake made by the engineer in calculating stresses. Many years later, he met with the son of the engineer who died that day and spoke to him of his father – I think it was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
There were many bridges after that but none has held our family in thrall like the Second Narrows does. When I drive across today, I still see where the site office stood. I can stand on the sidewalk and recreate in my mind the day the first connecting span swung into place, with my father walking across it as it did so. I remember eighteen men who died that day and the four others who died during its completion.
Today we remember:
High steel and red iron, guys!