Golden Gate marks 75th anniversary of 1937 accident

February 16, 2012 9:40:32 PM PST
Massive construction of bridges and buildings goes on all around us. The potential for danger is high. Take the new Bay Bridge for example; there hasn't been a single fatality on that project. But Friday marks the 75th anniversary of a day when 10 men died while working on the Golden Gate Bridge.

In February 1937, with three months to completion, only one worker had died on the Golden Gate Bridge construction project. That was a stunning number when at the time, the norm was one death for every $1 million of cost -- the Golden Gate was a $35 million project.

"Joseph Strauss was the chief engineer, had built a number of bridges, he was a safety nut," USF Professor Charles Fracchia said.

Fracchia is a professor of humanities at USF and founder of the San Francisco Historical Society. He says Strauss insisted on a number of safety precautions, including harnesses and hard hats, an innovation at the time.

"Men were not very compliant with that; he fined men who did not wear hard hats," Fracchia said.

Strauss also spent $125,000, a huge sum of money at the time, on a safety net to catch workers in a fall. That net saved the lives of 19 men, who later formed the Half-Way to Hell club.

But on Feb. 17, 1937 a heavy section of scaffolding holding 12 men crashed into the net and shredded it.

"There were 13 men affected by this. One man hung onto a beam with his pipe still in his mouth by the way, until the rescued him. Twelve plunged into the bay, two were saved, 10 died," Fracchia said.

Those 10, and the one who died the year before, are commemorated with a plaque on the bridge's western sidewalk.

Today the now iconic bridge stands as the ultimate monument to all the workers who had a hand in building it.