Survivors, rescuers remember 'blackest day' in B.C. work-site safety

Survivors of the Second Narrows Bridge collapse gathered to remember the accident, which is considered to be the worst work-site disaster in B.C. history.

Under cool gray skies, survivors of the Second Narrows Bridge collapse gathered to remember the accident, which is considered to be the worst work site disaster in B.C. history.

The bridge, which connects Vancouver with the North Shore, was renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing in 1994 to commemorate the collapse that killed 18 workers and injured more than 70 on June 17, 1958.

The rainy weather Tuesday was a stark contrast to the hottest day of the year in 1958 when Dr. Phil Nuytten, who was 16 at the time, heard the cries for help on his radio.

"I had no idea what they were talking about but the screams over the radio were unbelievable, people kept cutting in … I thought they were talking about the Lion’s Gate Bridge," Nuytten told the crowd.

He was a scuba diver getting ready for a salvage mission when he heard the calls on the radio. Nuytten had a police escort to the site where spans four and five of the bridge under construction had collapsed.

After a junior engineer made a mistake in the calculations for one of the bridge sections, it collapsed under its own weight during construction, throwing nearly 100 men into the water more than 50 metres below.

"The current was horrific, it was running very fast … there were still guys hanging from the wreckage, people trying to get down to them," said Nuytten.

But not everyone was so lucky, said Nuytten as he recalled the "sad" job of recovering bodies. He said the images have stayed with him.

"The men standing literally on the bottom, their lifejackets holding them up, their tool belts holding them down, their arms holding them out in the current, their hair flowing in the current."

Two days after the collapse, a diver was killed trying to recover bodies from the water.

David Anderson, president and CEO of WorkSafeBC, told the crowd he went to the site often as a child, and that the disaster is important to remember.

"It was the hottest day of the year in 1958, and the blackest day of the year in the modern history of the province," Anderson said.

The bridge was completed two years later, but Cecil Damery, president of Local 97 of the Ironworkers Union, said the event has not been forgotten.

"After 50 years, so many people have been affected by this tragedy, that it's not just an ironworkers story anymore. It's a story of B.C.'s history. So I don't think this just affects ironworkers. It affects a great many people," Damery said Monday.