Forty years ago, at 402 West Pender Street, a team of thieves carried out a dramatic robbery of the Vancouver Safety Deposit Vault, a private company.

They made off with millions in gold, cash and diamonds ... almost.

The heist is the subject of author Don Levers's new book, Loot for the Taking. Taking time from his book tour this week, Levers recounted the tale to host Rick Cluff during The Early Edition.

The building at 402 West Pender was constructed in the early 1900s and had a private vault built into it. Five thousand individual safety deposit boxes made of steel lined the room.

Levers said police officials at the time warned the vault company four months prior to the robbery that intelligence reports indicated a robbery could be imminent.

The warning was ignored, Levers said, and an alarm system or monitoring service was never installed. That's because they had 34 inches of concrete and steel separating the walls from anyone who wanted to get in, he said.

The thieves entered the building via the fire escape, made it to the boiler room in the basement, and proceeded to drill through the roughly 86 centimetres of concrete. They then used a thermal lance to bore through 10 centimetres of armour plating.

402 Pender

In 1977, 402 Pender Street contained a private vault that was robbed of gold and gemstones worth more than a million dollars at the time. (Don Levers)

Once inside the vault, Levers says the robbers ransacked 1,200 safety deposit boxes, and nearly made a clean get away.

But problems arose once they attempted to check their luggage at the Vancouver International Airport.

They had loaded one of the bags with so much loot that a baggage attendant couldn't lift it. When it was opened, more than a million dollars worth of valuables spilled out.

Of the five thieves, four were arrested and one is believed to have made it to South America with at least half a million dollars. 

While doing research for his book, Levers toured the space where the vault — once lauded as burglar proof — used to be. He spoke with victims of the heist and followed the story to the present day.

Levers said one of the men involved in the heist was arrested again in 2015 in Montreal as a suspect in a number of armoured car robberies.

Since publishing Loot for the Taking, Levers says people close to robbery have contacted him and approached him during his current book tour.

With files from The Early Edition