Smithson: A bridge, and a man, come tumbling down

The death of Stompin’ Tom Connors gave me a sad reason to…tell the story of the collapse of Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge.

Having grown up in a household with the sounds of Bud The Spud and Sudbury Saturday Night twanging away in the background, I’d long known of the collapse of Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge.

But I had never researched it until just a couple of weeks ago, and I tucked that story away thinking perhaps at some point I would have a reason to write about it.

The death of a great Canadian storyteller, Stompin’ Tom Connors, gave me a sad reason to tell a story of which many people alive today—Vancouverites among them —are unaware. And an opportunity to say goodbye to a person who was a continuing theme in my life and was a friend to all Canadians.

The Vancouver Police Museum website tells the story of June 17th, 1958:

“This date probably doesn’t mean anything to you. Even if you live and work in Vancouver, and perhaps unknowingly pass the memorial plaque where this date is emblazoned in bronze.

“Even if you’ve heard about it, maybe vaguely remember a story or two, you probably do not remember the date the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed.

“But it is a date that will never be forgotten by the men and women working in the Coroner’s Court that afternoon.

“Glen McDonald, chief coroner for the city of Vancouver, was at a restaurant when he heard the news. He looked out the window, across the city, to witness the devastation first-hand.

“It was an unbelievable sight, he remembers in his memoir, How Come I’m Dead? Though it seemed impossible that such a huge structure could fall so completely, it was a reality which the coroner had to quickly accept, and to even more quickly respond.

“The Second Narrows Bridge was in full-swing construction mode when it fell—18 people were crushed or drowned, 20 were grievously injured, and a total of 79 workers plunged the 210 feet into the freezing waters below.

“There was no room at the hospital morgue for so many bodies, so they were sent instead to the Vancouver City Morgue, which now houses our own museum.

“There was room in the morgue for only 10 or 12 bodies at a time, but they had extra space in the basement, and bodies were kept there until they could be identified.

“The process of identification was challenging. Many of the workers had been crushed under huge steel beams.

“McDonald remembers, ‘Some were no longer human. They looked like abstract Picasso paintings. Twisted, garish, unreal… The memories of that night still haunt me.’

“The morgue attendants had to resort to creative means to identify the bodies—from dental records to the brand of cigarettes left in their cover-all pockets.

“Many people questioned what failure in oversight had led to this terrible tragedy.

“Could the bridge’s collapse have been prevented? An inquest was held, in our own coroner’s court, now the main gallery of our museum.

“It was there that the jury learned that a company engineer had been on the bridge at the time of the collapse; he had been taking measurements because someone had raised concerns that the bridge had shifted—he was trying to ascertain if there was any danger.

“He died that day, as the bridge fell.

“Thanks to that inquest, recommendations were adopted that changed the way steel truss bridges were built, and those same rules help to protect our modern bridgeworkers.

“And so, in 1994, the Second Narrows Bridge was renamed The Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, to honour those who lost their lives.”

Stompin’ Tom preserved the story of June 17, 1958 in his song, The Bridge Came Tumbling Down. As a kid who grew up in Ottawa, and for whom Vancouver seemed a distant outpost, I have no idea how I would ever have learned about this tragedy but for that song.

So today, I’m taking a moment to thank the workers who put their lives on the line every day to make ours that much more enjoyable and convenient.

And to recognize a fellow named Tom who believed it was important to keep Canadians’ stories alive.

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