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KCBS Cover Story: Men Who Gave Their Lives Building Golden Gate Bridge

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) - It took more than engineering ingenuity to build the Golden Gate Bridge, which turns 75 this Sunday. It also took brave men willing to risk their lives, hundreds of feet above the Bay, to build one of the modern wonders of the world.

Not all of those men survived. There's a little-noticed memorial plaque, at the southwest end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Tragedy passed the Golden Gate Bridge by, then death struck twice, claiming the lives of eleven builders of the bridge," spokeswoman Mary Currie recited the words memorializing the tragic turn of events.

KCBS' Doug Sovern Reports:

According to Currie, the eleven deaths during the four years it took to build the span were far fewer than the naysayers expected.

"At that time the industry standard was that for every million dollars spent one life would be lost," she explained. "And the Golden Gate Bridge was a $35 million project so that would have meant that 35 lives would have been lost."

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Classic KPIX - 1987: Golden Gate Bridge 50th Anniversary Special
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Classic KPIX - 1962: 'The Bridge Builders' 25th Anniversary Documentary
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Much of the credit for minimizing loss of life goes to chief engineer Joseph Strauss, who came up with some unprecedented measures.

Aside from hard hats, goggles and wind cream, a first of its kind safety net was strung below the workers and above the Bay. But even that wasn't enough when a scaffold collapsed just three months before the bridge was finished, in 1937.

"Part of a rigging fell into the net and the net ripped and fell into the Bay and ten lives were lost," said Currie. "A couple of the men did survive that but ten lives were lost."

Another worker died in a separate accident.

19 others fell into that net and lived to tell about it. They were called the Halfway to Hell Club.

"I kind of stepped out too far, stepped on my heel and it was wet, slipped about three times and hit square on my back," recalled legendary bridge worker Al Zampa, a charter member of the Halfway to Hell Club.

He was hospitalized for eight months as a result of that accident. He had helped to build the Carquinez and Bay bridges before being hired to work on the Golden Gate. He died 12 years ago, but reminisced about the thrill of the job on the occasion of the Golden Gate Bridge's 50th Anniversary.

"You feel kind of high when you're up there. And I mean, without drinking."

The work was too hard - and too much fun - to get scared, he reasoned.

"I don't know if it's a thrill every minute, you don't realize you're up there."

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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