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Thunder in the Gorge
Posted by Ted Sheppard on August 10, 2010 at 2:23 PM.

Ted SheppardMen and women who have worked in the field erecting structural steel know that there are events that take place and people who show up that are memorable, interesting, humorous or all of the above. They have nothing to do directly with hanging iron, but they sometimes contribute to the overall experience. Usually the bigger the job the more stories there are to tell. A case in point is the erection of the Niagara Arch Bridge between Lewiston, N.Y. and Queenston, Ontario.


I was on a job in Detroit a few years ago, and the man taking me around was a Native American. When he told me where he was from, I said that I had worked with people from there on the bridge on the Queenston side. He asked me, “Were you there when the plane went down?” When I told him that I was, he went over to another ironworker and told him that I had been there “when the plane went down.” I remember it well, but it was obvious to me that it was a story that had spread to people who were not even there at the time. I for one will never forget it.


We had a creeper derrick on the arch and a material derrick up top on the tower behind the skewback. The creeper had finished erecting the two arch ribs in front of it, and almost all of the men on the American side were down on the river bank working on the next falsework bent. The falls of the material derrick were empty, but they were in the down position near the material buggy. There was not a lot of space between the rear leg of the creeper and the falls of the other derrick. All of a sudden a fighter jet came down the gorge, and just before it hit the creeper, it rolled so that the plane fit between the derrick leg and the falls. It then crashed into the side of the gorge. The only person who knew there was no pilot in the cockpit was the instrument man who was taking the arch rib elevations. It passed right through his line of sight. We had to retrieve the rod man. He fell to his knees and froze.


The explosion rocked the gorge, and you could feel the heat on the Canadian side of the river. The plane was a National Guard jet that flamed out shortly after takeoff. The pilot bailed out and when the plane got to the gorge, it made a right turn and headed for the bridge. It is something that I will never forget.



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For background on the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge from Wikipedia, click here.

To see photos of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, from, including a stunning construction shot (c. 1962) click here.

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