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June 26, 2000

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  Bridge disaster recalled

NEWS photo Paul McGrath
COLIN Glendinning, centre, is one of five remaining men who survived a plunge from the Ironworker's Memorial Second Narrows Crossing when it collapsed 42 years ago. Grandson Sam and son Patrick joined him at a memorial service held Saturday at the bridge.

By Keith Lowe
Contributing Writer

PATRICK Glendinning was seven years old on June 17, 1958, when his father Colin plunged into the turbulent waters of Burrard Inlet.

Seventy-eight other bridge workers also fell 175 feet (53 metres) into the inlet below.

Twenty men were hospitalized, while another 18 were killed, either instantly or shortly thereafter. A 19th fatality occurred later, when a diver searching for bodies, drowned.

While workers slowly transform the Lions Gate Bridge to the west, a group gathered Saturday beside the Ironworker's Memorial Second Narrows Crossing to honour those who were injured or died on the job 42 years ago.

Patrick Glendinning stood holding Colin's six-year-old grandson. His father, the 72-year-old survivor of Western Canada's worst bridge disaster, was there beside them along with four of his former co-workers.

In what has become an annual tradition, the surviving five lined up behind a bagpiper for the short march from the southeast end of the bridge deck to the memorial plaque that commemorates the official renaming of the bridge in 1996.

For everyone present who recalled that hot June day in 1958 -- when, at precisely 3:40 p.m., one of the steel bridge spans buckled and collapsed, carrying another span down with it -- the day evoked different memories, different feelings.

For Colin Glendinning, it's a get-together with a lot of good friends. He chuckled, recalling the plummet, as he fell off the bridge span backwards. "You know what I was thinking? 'Oh God, I wish I had a parachute' -- I really did," he said.

Jim English, then a job superintendent, joked that was the day he learned to swim. But he had only one thought during his free-fall into the inlet. "All the way down I kept saying, 'It can't happen, these bridges don't fall down.' We had such faith in the engineering, that it (seemed) impossible."

Gary Poirier, then an 18-year-old junior apprentice, remembered the heat. "It was probably the hottest day of the year, a day you want to go swimming," he recalled. "(I) was on the catwalk, walking back towards the ladder that goes to the top part of the bridge, and that's where she collapsed; on the top part of the ladder."

Poirier was sure he was going to die, but he was rescued by a pair of fisherman and released from hospital that night, with a torn knee ligament. Three months later, he returned to work, becoming a journeyman on the same bridge.

"Once an ironworker, always an ironworker," he shrugged.

He was the only one of the four apprentices up there that day, who returned to work afterwards. Two were killed. The third had a leg amputated.

Following the tragedy, Poirier maintained a vigil at the bridge every June 17, until he convinced his union local to make it a traditional event. "Life's gotta go on," Poirier rationalized, "but we still gotta remember."

But 49-year-old Patrick Glendinning remembers it all too well. "We didn't know for three or four days if (dad) was alive or where he was... there were no identities, they didn't really have the names and dad was unconscious."

When Colin Glendinning hit the water, the impact blackened one of his lungs, tore off his ear and broke his leg. He touched the bottom of the inlet before emerging to the surface. Glendinning was in the water for 40 minutes, with the dead body of one of his friends floating face down in front of him, a gaping hole in his head.

"I was coughing up blood," he said. "You're doing 120 m.p.h. when you hit and lying flat in the water -- it's hard."

Yet, like most of the hardy "high steel" workers, Glendinning, who was earning $3.85 an hour, returned to finish the bridge after he had recuperated. "That was scary," he said, "because you took down a piece of steel and tore it all down, but carrying it down was far more dangerous than putting it up... we had to be fast on our feet."

Glendinning was finally persuaded to quit bridge building when, in a separate accident, he managed to break his other leg at exactly the same time, one year later to the day.

By coincidence, he was taken both times to Vancouver General Hospital, where he was received by the same nurse and had his leg plastered by the same doctor.

"My mother said, 'You're really wearing on me here, Colin,'" Patrick Glendinning recalled. "She just worked on him and he had to find another job, but he's always had his heart in iron working."

Patrick Glendinning still harbours feelings of resentment for Dominion Bridge, the bridge building company he feels is to blame for the tragedy.

"I wish I could tell you there was a lesson learned," he said, "but I don't think there is." In a subsequent Royal Commission inquiry, the bridge collapse was attributed to human error on the part of one of the engineers who died at the scene. A temporary arm, holding the fifth anchor span, was deemed too light to bear the weight.

The younger Glendinning disagrees, however. "They chintzed out on a lot of stuff," he said. "I think the engineer called for a certain grade of steel and I don't think they put it in. I'm just guessing, like everyone else, but I don't think it was ever really looked into to find out exactly what the problems were."

Although the issue was highly charged at the time, none of the men present Saturday felt bitter or angry, and most of them were eager to return to work.

"It was just a little engineering mistake," said North Vancouver resident Joe Mazarro, a retired ironworker who showed up to pay his respects. "The calculations were wrong, that's all."

Mazarro remembered how, back in 1958, a company superintendent took him for a three-hour tour of the half-constructed bridge, to impress him with how safe it was. "The next week it fell down," he said.

Kevin McGrath, a business agent for the ironworker's union, said the theme of the day was to honour the memory of the ironworkers killed and their families suffering, but was extended as well, to all working people who are killed or injured on the job.

He refused to draw any comparisons between the 1958 tragedy and present day safety conditions for workers upgrading the Lions Gate Bridge. McGrath acknowledged "some real close shaves... with traffic on the bridge," but he said, "Any work being done on a bridge is always a dangerous task. People should think about that when they're riding across these bridges."

For people such as Colin Glendinning, the dangers go with the territory. "His love, his whole life is still iron working," explained his son Patrick. "Even with all the crap he went through, he still loves it. It's in his blood."

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