British Columbia

Last living survivor of Second Narrows Bridge disaster won't let pandemic stop him from honouring dead

Lucien Lessard, now 91, plans to be part of an annual ceremony commemorating those who worked on the Second Narrows Bridge, which collapsed on June 17, 1958. It remains one of British Columbia's worst industrial accidents.

Lucien Lessard, now 91, was working on the crossing over the Burrard Inlet in 1958 when it collapsed

Dozens of people in nearby boats came to help after the under-construction Second Narrows Bridge collapsed on June 17, 1958. Twenty-four people, including a diver who helped search for bodies, died as a result of the collapse. (CBC)

A sunny afternoon instantly turned dark for Lucien Lessard on June 17, 1958, as he plunged into the ocean when a support collapsed on a highway bridge being constructed between Vancouver and North Vancouver.

Lessard, now 91, was among 79 workers who fell from the Second Narrows Bridge in what remains one of British Columbia's worst industrial accidents.

He is the last living survivor of the disaster that killed 23 people, mostly iron workers, along with two engineers and a crane operator. A diver searching for bodies in the inlet also drowned.

On Wednesday, Lessard planned to be at the site as part of an annual ceremony commemorating those who worked on the span, which was renamed the Iron Workers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing in 1994.

Lucien Lessard in an undated handout photo. Lucien Lessard, 91, is the last living survivor of the Second Narrows Bridge disaster. In 1994, the bridge was renamed the Iron Workers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing to honour those who lost their lives when the bridge collapsed. (The Canadian Press/Handout/Iron Workers Union, Local 97)

The event draws hundreds of people annually but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been limited this year to only a few — including Lessard, his daughter, the president of Local 97 of the Iron Workers Union, a reverend and a bagpiper who will lead a wreath procession.

Lessard was a foreman at the site and was known to his crew as Lou.

"I was on the edge of the bridge,'' he recalled in an interview.

"I went down 125 feet (38 metres) and then 35 feet (10 metres) to the bottom of the ocean. It was dark on the bottom because when the bridge fell down, that mixed the mud on the bottom of the ocean and it was as black as it could be,'' he said.

When he finally surfaced he realized he'd suffered serious injuries, he said. He fractured his left femur and right arm, and spent over three months in hospital.

WATCH | A short documentary about the construction of the Second Narrows Bridge, produced in 1998 for the 40th anniversary of the disaster:

A 10-minute feature about the 40th anniversary of the bridge collapse. 10:02

His thoughts were with those he knew had not survived, and that took an emotional toll on him and the other survivors.

"Dad never talked about it,'' said Christine Rzepka, who was born in 1961.

It was only about 20 years ago that her father mentioned anything about the memorial he attended every year, and even then it seemed he'd let it slip, she said.

"He wasn't ready to deal with it. He kept it separate. He dealt with it when he went to the memorial with his iron worker friends and he didn't bring that sadness home at all," Rzepka said.

Rzepka attended her first memorial in honour of the dead and their families about 20 years ago before her siblings, including three sisters and two brothers, began joining them, she said.

"After we started to come to the memorial he started to open up a lot more about what happened then. We've learned a lot more in the last 10 years than we ever knew growing up," she said.

There were few safety precautions for workers on the Second Narrows Bridge when it collapsed in 1958. (CBC)

Rzepka said her father, who moved to a retirement home in Langley, B.C., about three months ago, is determined to attend the annual memorial for as long as he can. This year he plans to don a face shield to protect him from any risk of COVID-19.

Paul Beacom, president of Local 97, said the memorial will be broadcast via Facebook and Zoom.

"It's to let people know that when they cross that bridge between Vancouver and North Vancouver there was a high price to pay to build that bridge, in human lives."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now