Tragedy at Second Narrows: The Story of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge
November 4, 2013
Review By Mark Leier
Probably few occupants of the 120,000 vehicles that daily take the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing know its full name or the story behind it. Of those who do, a significant portion still resents the name change from the prosaic “Second Narrows Bridge” in 1994. But when an unfinished section of the bridge collapsed and took seventeen ironworkers to their deaths, the tragedy seared the province. These two books demonstrate the impact on workers, their families, and the larger community as well as the modernizing project the bridge represented. The books also represent very different, though equally powerful, ways of dealing with the past, which is obvious even in the titles.
The title of Gary Geddes’s book – Falsework – is a direct reference to the temporary structures put in place during bridge construction. It was this falsework that fell on 17 June 1958. Geddes’s book is a series of poems, stories, and photographs that use falsework as a metaphor for the false promise of modernity; for the engineering mistakes, flawed material and procedures, and inappropriate safety standards that led to collapse and death; for the vagaries of historical memory; and for the complicated family relations that Geddes sketches. He combines his craft with that of the historian and with his personal connection to the tragedy to use poetry, as Octavio Paz suggested, to build a “bridge suspended between history and truth.” The result is not a documentary history but, rather, as the author puts it, an “intimate, and largely fictional, portrait” of the people and society that were rent when the span went down. Geddes uses all the tools of literature to forge an emotional connection to the past that may be fictional but that is not false.
Eric Jamieson’s Tragedy at Second Narrows is an example of non-academic, popular history at its best. It is deft, professional, and rigorous. The handling of the sources, ranging from government reports to oral history to photographs, is thorough and sophisticated. The writing is crisp and compelling as Jamieson explores the companies, unions, governments, and technology of the day in order to lay out the building of the bridge and the disaster of 17 June. While this forms the centre of the book, Jamieson also deftly sketches the optimistic boom of the period and takes us past the collapse and deaths and inquiries to discuss the labour issues that followed. Jamieson is evenhanded in his assessment of the causes and consequences of the disaster, noting the series of errors that led directly to the events while remaining cautious in attributing blame and guilt.
Like the builders of the bridge itself, the two authors start at opposite sides of historical practice, yet meet somehow in the middle to provide accounts that are carefully constructed, deeply moving, and convincing. Though neither Geddes nor Jamieson is writing labour history as such, each forces us to reflect upon the collective labour that lies behind our daily lives yet so often remains hidden from view and analysis. Jamieson concludes by quoting the chaplain at the service for the seventeen dead workers to argue that the bridge is “a reminder of the hazards faced daily by the men and women ‘who strive so brilliantly and dangerously to give us a modern world.’” If that lesson was learned at great cost in 1958, it seems largely forgotten in our brave new postmodern world, where over a thousand workplace deaths go largely unnoticed in Canada each year.