Fallen bridge worker's son breaks silence for safety's sake

For the first time, Josh Rene is speaking out about the death of his father, Jamie Barker, who fell to his death from the Ambassador Bridge in November 2000.

Josh Rene inspired to speak after hearing another man fell to his death from Ambassador Bridge

Jamie Barker, right, holds his son Josh Rene in this undated family photo. Barker fell from the Ambassador Bridge to his death in November 2000. (Josh Rene family photo)

When industrial painter Kent Morton fell to his death from the Ambassador Bridge in January, the tragedy brought to mind the death of another bridge worker 12 years ago.

Jamie Barker's death brought public attention to the issue of safety for workers on the international bridge.

Barker was one of 10 men painting the Canadian side of bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor in November 2000. The scaffolding they were on collapsed in high winds. Two workers were plucked from the water. Four others dangled by their safety harnesses 30 metres above the water for an hour.

After that accident, there was a coroner's inquest that made 50 recommendations.

Now, for the first time, Jamie Barker's 21-year-old son, Josh Rene, is speaking out about his father's death.

Rene, who is now a father of two, remembers his dad as "a big kid."

They often wrestled on the back porch to the tunes of professional wrestlers' entry music.

"He'd always win," Rene said.

'There's been an accident'

Rene was a 10-year-old Grade 4 student when his father died. He had just finished breakfast when his mother sat him down and said, "There's been an accident at your dad's work and he's missing."

"It all started right there," Barker said.

He called the ensuing months of search and recovery of his father's body "a circus" because of the media attention.

Scaffolding dangles from the Ambassador Bridge the day Kent Morton fell. The event inspired Josh Rene to speak out about workplace safety.

"I’m pretty good now. I’ve got to the point now where I’m able to talk about this," Barker said

Rene is promoting a 5-kilometre walk called the Steps for Life, scheduled for Saturday. The walk is to promote workplace safety and support families who have suffered a loss through workplace tragedies.

"There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. It brings everything home with my two kids; not only for their safety when they get into the workplace, but the fact they’ll never know my dad," Rene said.

Rene said his father never expressed any workplace safety concerns, but was afraid of heights.

"It was a big step for him to be on the bridge painting it," Rene said.

Rene is also afraid of heights — and water, too. He thinks his father's death may have something to do with his own fears.

Most recent death 'brought back everything'

Josh Rene, 21, is now at the point where he can talk about his father's death. (CBC News)

When Morton fell, Rene said he spent much of that day at the waterfront, watching the search and rescue operation.

"It brought back everything that happened with my father," Rene said.

Rene hasn't talked to Morton's family, but other members of his family have.

Prior to Morton's death, Rene had been "toying with the idea of taking my father's story to an audience where I could promote workplace safety."

Morton's death set that plan in motion. Rene took a public speaking course. An interview with CBC's The Early Shift in Windsor was his first public appearance. He's also enrolled in a public relations course.

"It has definitely brought me to be more safety conscious," Rene said of his father's death.

"It's made me not sit back and ignore things that happen [in the workplace]," said Rene, who works in a deli.

Rene's first interview came on the 20th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster, which was marked by Conservatives, New Democrats and union officials Tuesday on Parliament Hill.