Sunday, 19 August 2012

Book Review: Tragedy At Second Narrows, by Eric Jamieson (2008)


On June 17 1957, the partially completed Second Narrows Bridge, under construction to connect Vancouver with its northern suburbs, spectacularly collapsed, claiming the lives of 18 workers. It was a shocking event in the life of the young city. In Tragedy At Second Narrows author Eric Jamieson examines the context, people, causes and aftermath of Vancouver's worst industrial disaster.

Through interviews with survivors and their families, as well as press accounts and inquiry records, Jamieson weaves a cohesive narrative of the days leading up to the collapse, the tragic day itself, and the follow-up rescue efforts and inquiries. The depiction of the swashbuckling ironworker culture in the days prior to exacting worker safety standards is eye-opening and sometimes exhilarating, Jamieson finding men remarkably addicted to life as a continuous high-wire act without safety nets.

But the book also contains several feeble moments. Tragedy At Second Narrows contains no shortage of technical passages that attempt to explain the basics of bridge design and, therefore, the causes of the bridge failure during construction. There are other detailed descriptions of the different tasks involved in erecting ironworks during bridge construction, as Jamieson methodically explains each crewman's role. It can be argued that these parts of the book are necessary, but they are also dense, difficult to digest, and almost impossible to follow for anyone who is not a bridge designer or ironworker. A few basic labelled diagrams would have done wonders to illustrate the key concepts, instead of the proverbial thousands of words.

Another weakness in Tragedy At Second Narrows is a discussion of the labour strike and inter-union warfare that erupted post-disaster. Only nominally related to the bridge collapse, these follow-up controversies do not find traction and add little to the book's substance.

Much better are the chapters that set the context of the bridge, including the political intrigue, technical arguments, financial stresses, and the coming together of the deal that triggered the bridge construction at the Second Narrows location. Jamieson paints an effective picture of British Columbia in the grips of a sustained growth spurt, with Premier W.A.C. Bennett and his Transportation Minister "Flying" Phil Gaglardi acting as principle enablers and cheerleaders.

Also enjoyable yet sad are the stories of the men at the centre of the tragedy, particularly the principal project engineer Murray McDonald and his young assistant John McKibbin. The latter was most likely responsible for the design error that resulted in the collapse and the former failed to adequately check and correct the faulty calculation before it became a tragedy. Hands-on professionals dedicated to their jobs, both McDonald and McKibbin perished when the partially completed bridge collapsed into the Burrard Inlet due to an inadequately designed temporary support structure, and their story is a timeless reminder of the need for engineers to be ceaselessly vigilant even when completing the most mundane of tasks.

Tragedy At Second Narrows is clear-eyed and objective, Jamieson wresting an overall agreeable read out of a dark event.

Subtitled: The Story Of The Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.
282 pages plus Notes and Index.
Includes many black and white photos.
Published in hardcover by Harbour Publishing.





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