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FOOTAGE FOUND: Vancouver Narrows Bridge Collapse

On this day in history the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows bridge, a 1292 metre long cantilever bridge spanning the Burrard Inlet, collapsed during construction. 18 steel-workers are killed as a result, despite a swift response by rescuers. A diver working on the rescue is later drowned, bringing the total death count to 19.

At 3:40 in the afternoon of June 17th, 1958, the centre span collapsed with a cracking of steel that is reported to have been heard across the city. Also the largest span in the bridge, the centre span flung 79 ironworkers more than 100 feet down into the Burrard inlet as it slid into the water. The 18 dead were either killed on impact or drowned, possibly (and morbidly) by their heavy tool belts.

A royal commission report later revealed that poor engineering was to blame. A temporary arm, holding up the 5th span, was deemed to light to hold the weight and was the source of the collapse. In memory of the disaster, the bridge was renamed as the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing in 1994. An excerpt from the report reads:

“The use of plywood alone as “soft packing” for the beams that supported the temporary tower ‘was a contributing cause of the failure of the grillage solely because of the absence of stiffeners and effective diaphragming in the upper tier of the grillage.’…[the report] found that it was an ‘over simplification’ to say that mathematical error was the sole cause of the bridge collapse. Ordinarily, it noted, the design of a bridge would have been supervised by ‘several individuals.’ The Second Narrows Bridge, on the other hand, had been designed by an ‘able, young, but comparatively inexperienced engineer and checked only by one other person.’

A series of errors and oversights with no one person responsible, but without any restitution made either. Really, was anyone at all held to task for this? It doesn’t appear so.

BCIT students produced this fascinating collection of interviews with surviving ironworkers in 2003.

However, the disaster is best immortalized by Stompin’ Tom Connor in his heartbreaking song, “Bridge Came Tumbling Down“. The song erroneously blames “a big wind” for the disaster, but is still a fitting tribute to the heroism of the workers and rescuers that day.

It stands as one of the greatest Canadian tragedies. Here’s to those brave nineteen.

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