In the era of the Golden Gate Bridge's construction, workmen knew a grim rule of thumb: on average, one worker would be killed for every million dollars spent on a high-steel construction project. Image-conscious chief engineer Joseph Strauss wanted his project to be the exception. Strauss invested hundreds of thousands of dollars -- Depression-era dollars -- to improve equipment and safety standards for his workers.
Russell Cone, resident engineer, supervised safety procedures for all workers. Cone made sure hard hats were worn at all times, since most workmen were injured by errant flying objects. Drinking alcohol or stunting -- at any height -- was grounds for immediate dismissal. Cone was a tough enforcer of the safety rules. But the most innovative safety feature at the Golden Gate site was yet to come.
A Safety Net
In 1936, when delays slowed construction, Strauss invested over $130,000 in a novel safety feature: a vast net -- similar to a circus net -- suspended under the bridge. The safety net extended ten feet wider than the bridge's width and fifteen feet further than the roadway's length. It gave workers an abiding sense of security as they moved more freely -- and quickly -- across the slippery, half-constructed steel. "There's no doubt the work went faster because of the net," said Lefty Underkoffler, a Golden Gate bridgeman. Some workers were positively giddy about the innovation, so much so that they had to be threatened with dismissal so they wouldn't dive into the net for thrills.
The net was soon considered a large success in its own right. It was patented by its manufacturer, J. L. Stuart Company. But the morning of February 16, 1937, would prove that the net was not infallible. A crew of eleven men were working on a stripping platform close to the north tower, while two men in the net below scraped away debris. In a flash, the west side of the platform gave way. The five-ton structure hung crazily from the bridge, tilting its panicked load of workers toward the water hundreds of feet below. One worker, Tom Casey, lunged and grabbed onto a bridge beam, where he dangled until he was rescued.
One set of scaffold wheels had escaped its support rail, and the unbalanced weight quickly released the other two sets. The whole mechanism collapsed into the net, which held it -- but only momentarily. The sound of the net tearing, according to witnesses, was like "the crack of a machine gun" or "the rip of a picket fence splintering." The men, the wood, and the net plummeted 220 feet into the water -- the height of a twenty-two-story building.
Ten Men Killed
Of the twelve men who fell to the water, two survived. One of them was the foreman of the stripping crew, Slim Lambert. "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," said Lambert. He was twenty-six at the time and, fortunately, a strong swimmer. He struggled to free himself from the tangles of the net underwater. Lambert suffered a broken shoulder, several ribs, and neck several vertebrae, but he lived to tell the tale. In a single catastrophe, the project's near-perfect safety record was obliterated.
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