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Second Narrows Bridge survivor evades collapse with fluke scuba outing 66 years ago

Jon Lesage, a junior ironworker at the time, went diving for crabs on June 17, 1958, while on call to work on the bridge

On the morning of June 17, 1958, Jon Lesage was at home in New Westminster, waiting to be called in to work on the under-construction Second Narrows Bridge.

His friend had another idea.

Both had recently taken up the exciting new hobby of scuba diving, and Jon’s friend suggested the pair go hunting for crabs in Boundary Bay.

At first, Jon refused, but as the morning dragged on, his friend persisted and eventually the young ironworker agreed to spend the day diving.

The 21-year-old told his mother-in-law his plans for the day, collected his gear and headed out the door.

About 20 minutes later, the union hall called Jon into work.

It’s likely he could have died that day if he went in, explained his son, Jason Lesage.

For on that day 66 years ago, a temporary support structure gave way on the bridge, causing 79 workers to fall into Burrard Inlet below. Of the casualties, 18 died that day and another diver would perish in the rescue effort.

“It's something that happens that makes a mark in your life,” Jason said. “[My father] has often remarked about that.”

Ironworking can be a perilous profession, especially in those days.

“He definitely is very lucky,” Jason said. “He's had several close calls at work, but that day for sure.”

Now 87 years old and living in Burnaby, Jon recalls hearing news of the collapse for the first time on the radio as the friends drove home from their diving trip.

His reaction was total disbelief.

“At that time on the road we didn't know anything, how many people were lost or how bad it was. But I drove there the very next day. Of course, you couldn't get near the bridge – it was all roped off,” Jon said. “I knew all the ironworkers that went down, so it was a real trauma.”

Jon lost several colleagues that day, but one of his friends, Lou Lessard, survived. He fell 150 feet into the water below, shattering his left femur and breaking an arm. Today, Lessard is the last living survivor of the incident.

Lessard was Jon’s foreman at the time. Both would work on several projects together with Dominion Bridge Company, which later expanded globally as AMCA International.

They stayed in touch for many years after retirement.

Although his fluke scuba outing meant he avoided the carnage of the actual collapse, Jon helped in the aftermath.

“My dad worked on the cleanup of the bridge collapse, and he actually lost part of his pinky finger,” Jason said, adding that his father would help complete the bridge’s construction after that.

Jon was an ironworker on many other large-scale projects during his career, including construction of the Port Mann Bridge in the 1960s and several other spans throughout the province.

Aside from the Second Narrows tragedy, ironworking was a really good job, Jon said.

“I loved the outdoors. I had no trouble climbing steel, which was a blessing. And the pay was really good,” he said.

“That was his calling,” Jason said. “He was very proud to be an ironworker. That was something that he loved, loved doing.”

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