I saw them die all around me and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.—”Slim” Lambert, survivor
75 years ago today, just 100 days before it opened, 10 men lost their lives in a single accident during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time it was estimated that one man would die for every million dollars spent on a project of this dimension.
Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss, instituted many safety innovations to make this job an exception to the rule.The Golden Gate Bridge was the first job to employ hard hats and safety lines. Other innovations included respirators for the riveters, glare-free googles to counter the glare off of the water below, a special hand & face cream to protect against the wind, and an on-site field hospital staffed by doctors.
The biggest innovation was installing a $130,000 safety net that was suspended under the bridge to save lives and increase production on the span by giving workers a sense of security as they went about their jobs. The net was longer and wider than the bridge and the 19 men who fell into it were known as the “Halfway-to-Hell Club”.
Construction work on the Golden Gate Bridge officially began on January 5, 1933 and the workplace was accident-free for 44 months until October 21, 1936 when Kermit Moore was crushed as a steel beam holding a derrick slammed down on top of him. It is remarkable that, on a budget of $35 million dollars and under the one-life-per million-dollars-spent rule, only a single life had been lost on this high-steel job.
3 months later Death struck again when a 5-ton movable work platform, with 11 men aboard, broke loose and plummeted into the safety net, ripping it apart as the massive structure exceeded the weight capacity of the net. Workers had complained earlier that the platform was unsafe and, as if in answer to the view that “the bridge demands its life”, the tangled mass of the workers, the platform and the net plunged 220 feet into San Francisco Bay.
Two men survived the fall into the icy waters, although one of them died the next day. One man, Tom Casey, escaped the fall by lunging away from the platform as it broke loose. He was found hanging on a beam and pulled to safety.
On a personal note: I worked with Tom Casey’s son 30 years ago and one night he told a group of us the story of his father and the accident that claimed 10 lives. This event was a tipping point for pending legislation in Congress for Worker’s Compensation Rights reform. Tom travelled by train to testify at several Congressional Hearing Sessions around the country and reforms were eventually instituted.
Here is a list of the men who died on February 17, 1937:
- O.A. Anderson
- Chris Anderson
- William Bass
- O. Desper
- Fred Dümmatzen
- Terence Hallinan
- Eldridge Hillen
- Charles Lindros
- Jack Norman
- Louis Russell
A memorial in honor of the workers who died during the construction of the bridge is located on the West sidewalk. This is a constant reminder to me of the sacrifice made by these men and their families as I pass by on my way to work on the span.
I am especially grateful that this plaque and all the others were refinished in time for the 75th Anniversary festivities. I thank the General Manager in particular for overseeing this honor to our past.