81 years ago today ten men left their homes and went to work on the Golden Gate Bridge with no idea that it would be their last day on earth. Whatever hopes and dreams they had stayed with them when, later that morning, they plunged 220 feet into San Francisco Bay atop a 5-ton scaffold entwined in a safety net. According to witnesses, the sound of the net tearing was like “the crack of a machine gun” or “the rip of a picket fence splintering.” It was the second fatal accident during the construction of the bridge.
Three months before, on October 21, 1936, Kermit Moore was killed when he was crushed by a falling steel beam. For 44 months the bridge construction project was fatality-free—a remarkable feat when the prevailing wisdom of the day was that the average “cost” of a job this size was one life per one million dollars spent.
As I was falling, a piece of lumber fell on my head. I was almost unconscious. Then the icy water of the channel brought me to.
—Slim Lambert, 26, Stripping Crew foreman
Tragedy struck during the performance of a routine job on a routine day. A movable scaffold—a work platform—with 11 men aboard was in the process of being relocated. Two men were under the scaffolding in the safety net clearing out debris when a set of wheels on the West side of the platform above them broke. The unbalanced load caused the other wheels on that side to release their grip on the support rail and the bridgemen tumbled into the net. Now off-balance, the wheels on the East side of the scaffold broke loose and the structure fell onto the men in the net. One man, Tom Casey, was able to jump and hold onto a bridge beam until he was rescued.
The $130,000 safety net that ran under the length of the bridge, the “floor”, was not designed to hold the weight of a 5-ton scaffold. The net began to tear loose from its anchor points and fell into San Francisco Bay along with the platform and the men. In a twist of fate worthy of a Hollywood movie, the event was captured on film as it happened, by a professional photographer who was taking advertising photos for a local department store. [Note: The black dots in the net are the victims of the accident.]
Years later, Slim Lambert’s son spoke about his father’s ordeal:
Skip Lambert: The net’s going down and he’s hanging on, going down head first. And he realized that he had to reverse his position and land feet first to have any chance of surviving. When he landed in the water, he was feet first, perfectly vertical but he landed in the corner of the net. And the weight of the staging almost immediately took the net down. He thinks he went way, way down, and wiggling the whole time, and was able to break loose. When he got to the surface, one of his best friends, Fred Dümmatzen, surfaced. He was alive but unconscious. My dad with one arm was able to get some lumber under him, give him a little flotation, and then get his arm around him and hang onto him. Well, this was February. And the water in the bay had to be maybe 50-52 degrees,… At the outside, a fit person is supposed to last 20 minutes. My dad was in the water for 30 to 40 minutes. Just as my dad was going to succumb to hypothermia, a crab boat came along. The man stopped and was able somehow, using extraordinary effort, to pull them onto the boat. My dad had suffered a broken shoulder, broken collar bone, broken ribs, broken neck, broken back, and two horribly twisted ankles. So he was really busted up. When they got to the hospital, he slowly thawed to the point where they could straighten his limbs out and x-ray him. And then they-they found out how badly injured he was. When he got out of the hospital, he was an inch and a quarter shorter than before the accident. So it had taken its toll. My dad was haunted by the fact that they weren’t picked up earlier. He felt that if the Coast Guard had seen them and got to them, that Fred Dümmatzen might have lived. It always bothered him that he was regarded as a hero because he said, “I did nothing heroic. I wanted to save my best friend’s life, and I did the best that I could.” —PBS documentary, American Experience: Golden Gate Bridge
Joseph Strauss was a stickler for worker safety. There were many “safety firsts” on the Golden Gate Bridge project including the use of hard hats, safety belts and the safety net. In spite of every precaution that Strauss could prepare for, the bridge still “demanded a life”—10 lives at once in this case.
Without the hard work of thousands of engineers, bridge men, and steel mill workers the Golden Gate Bridge would not have been built. Today, it is maintained by a dedicated crew of bridgeworkers who have great respect for the work and sacrifice of those who have gone before.
The Following Men 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
“There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” —David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
I hope that these men will not slip away, forgotten to history.
- Remember When
- In Memory of Those Who Sacrificed All
- Searching for Lindros
- Memorial Plaque
- Golden Gate Bridge Research Library
Credit for images and quotes
- Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District
- PBS American Experience, Golden Gate Bridge
- San Francisco Public Library