Mike Lecuyer had just finished shovelling a load of cement on his second day of work on the Heron Road Bridge on Aug. 10, 1966 when he noticed a curious sight: four-by-fours toppling at the other end of the structure.
In "the roar of everything," the 18-year-old construction rookie didn't immediately realize that a section of the new Ottawa bridge he had been hired to help build was collapsing into the Rideau River below — an infrastructure disaster that would claim nine lives and injure dozens more.
"We heard all the screams and the yells," he recalled 50 years later.
Then, suddenly, he was being "buried alive" by cement.
"It just happened so fast, but when I realized that I was still alive, that's when it kicked in, 'Oh, my. This is not good. I'm going to die now,'" he said. "And, of course, no one could help you at the time with all the wet cement and the rubble and the reinforcing rods whipping around — and that's where a lot of guys got impaled by the rods."
'Let the bridge do the talking'
Lecuyer has lived with the horror of that day for 50 years and shares his story to make sure it's not a forgotten part of Ottawa's history.
Now on the anniversary of that awful day, he said it's appropriate the bridge — completed after the collapse — is being renamed the Heron Road Workers' Memorial Bridge.
"I won't be around forever, so let the bridge do the talking ... to remind the up-and-coming generation that this was a helluva tragedy, and let's not ever have it happen again," he said.
"It would be fitting for the families to know their lost ones will never be forgotten."
A brief ceremony will be held at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday at the bridge.
Escaping the wreckage
Lecuyer said he was lucky to be conscious after surviving a fall during the collapse of the bridge — but he remembers struggling to breathe.
"I realized, 'Woah, woah, wow, I'm still alive.' But every time I tried to take a breath, the cement would sort of come down off the pillar and push me into all the rubble and sort of bury me. I'd get my head up and try to clear myself out and another big blob would come down," he said.
"By the time I realized what was happening I was up to my chest in wet cement."
The saving grace, he said, was that his leg was caught on a rod "way over his head," allowing him to reach up and grab his foot to pull himself up.
"That's the only thing, basically that saved me. And not being knocked out. Had I been knocked I would have been dead," he said.
'Different outlook on life'
Once Lecuyer finally escaped the cement, he faced what he thought was another deadly obstacle — a crane.
"I thought it was wavering but it wasn't. It was me because I'd been hit a couple of times in the head," he said.
Lecuyer took off running — or so he thought.
"I thought I was running but I wasn't. My arms were moving but, unfortunately, my legs weren't," he said.
He said a friend grabbed him, and the pair went off to search for others who had been buried on the other side of the bridge. They eventually made it to the hospital.
"It could have just ended right there. Life, in general, there are good times, bad times but it doesn't matter: you're alive," he said. "You just have a different outlook on life. A different appreciation."
9 killed in collapse
Nine workers were killed in the collapse:
- Leonard T. Baird
- Clarence Beattie
- Jean-Paul Guerin
- Omer Lamadeleine
- Edmund Newton
- Lucien Regimbald
- Domenico Romano
- Raymond Tremblay
- Joas Viegas
An inquiry into the collapse that heard from more than 70 witnesses found there was a lack of bracing of bridge supports as concrete was being poured.
There were "significant changes" to rules and regulations surrounding workplace safety after the disaster, said Sean McKenny, the head of the Ottawa and District Labour Council.
"It was just sort of a snowball effect. A lot started to happen," he said. "More of a focus towards health and safety, and the importance from a contractor's perspective of ensuring that they're providing a [healthy and safe] workplace for all of the workers on the job."