Monday, August 3, 2009

Tragedy at Second Narrows The Story of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge

by Eric Jamieson Harbour Publishing ISBN 978-1-55017-451-9 $32.95 Hardback 6 x 9 301 pp

On June 17, 1958, Vancouver experienced the worst industrial accident in its history when the new bridge being built across Burrard Inlet collapsed into the flooding tidal waters of Second Narrows, killing eighteen workers. Photos of the two broken spans tilted into the sea went around the world and provided the city with one of its iconic historical images, still familiar to school children half a century later. The shocking thing was that the bridge was not an old, decrepit structure, but a new one just in the midst of being erected with all the support and security modern engineering could provide. That somebody had made a colossal error seemed obvious, but it would take a Royal Commission to discover how and why. Even then, some mysteries will never be solved.Tragedy at Second Narrows unravels one of Vancouver's great mysteries with all the appeal of a gripping detective novel. Eric Jamieson has returned to the scene of the tragedy and reconstructed the tragic event with scrupulous care, introducing the entire cast of politicians, construction bosses, engineers and ironworkers; he relives those terrifying moments when the structure began to crack and drop like the bottom was falling out of the world. In the end, readers will have learned about the fascinating world of big-time bridge building and will be left with a searingly clear picture of precisely how a great disaster took shape and plunged to its inevitable conclusion.
Although this event happened before I was born, I was fascinated to read this account. Jamieson has done a good job of allowing the reader to feel they know the characters which is truly the mark of a good writer.
The book clearly shows the state of public infrastructure explosion in 1950s British Columbia with highway construction and public works project being undertaken to support the rapidly growing provincial economy.
In the early 1950s Vancouver's North Shore was serviced by the Lions Gate Bridge, a ferry service operated by the City of North Vancouver operating between the North foot of Main St in just west of the CNR ocean terminal in Vancouver to the foot of Lonsdale in North Vancouver and a road alongside the rail tracks over the Second Narrows Bridge. The toll authority operating the Lions Gate Bridge felt a second crossing would be beneficial as the Lions Gate Bridge was congested. Options studied included a second Lions Gate Bridge, a crossing from Queensbury Avenue in North Vancouver to Nanaimo Street in Vancouver, a Second Narrows highway bridge and most interesting of all - closing Second Narrows and creating a system of lochs and piers. Although the latter idea was first proposed in 1911, it was never really abandoned until the 1950s.
Finally after a number of years of back and fort between civic, provincial and federal political officials, a construction contract was awarded to Dominion Bridge for a six lane highway bridge with tolls to connect to the new Trans Canada Highway still under construction.
Dominion Bridge employed only two engineers on the job site, one an experienced bridge builder and his assistant an engineering neophyte from Australia. In fact it was a calculation with data from an incorrect table (remember no laptop computers in the 1950s!) by the young Australian signed off by the senior engineer that lead to tragic results. Both were killed in the subsequent tragedy.
The collapse on June 17, 1958 as mentioned above highlights one of the coldest corporate moves I have ever come across. At the exact minute of the collapse, which killed 18, Dominion Bridge cut off the hourly pay of the ironworkers, painters and others working on the new bridge. While most of the survivors were in the water fighting for their lives, they were doing so on their own time. How callous is that?
Congratulations to Mr Jamieson on a fine work and I certainly look forward to reading his next work.

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