April 28, 2023

NORTH VANCOUVER DIVING legend Phil Nuytten might just be the most famous British Columbian you’ve never heard of.

He is the inventor of the world famous Newtsuit and Exosuit deep water dive systems, and the DeepWorker submersible vehicle. He’s dived to world-famous shipwrecks, landing himself on the cover of National Geographic in the process. He helped James Cameron shoot the underwater footage for Titanic. He’s won the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and dozens of other prestigious awards. He’s explored the deepest and darkest corners of our global oceans.

Phil Nuytten with his Newtsub DeepWorker 2000 which can explore the oceans to depths of 600m.

But in a lifetime of unforgettable days, June 17, 1958 stands out as his most haunting.

Nuytten was one of the first divers in the water after the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed, which sent 79 workers into Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. A total of 19 died in the disaster: 14 ironworkers, three engineers, one painter and, later, a rescue diver.

To honour those workers, the bridge was renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing in the 1990s.

Nuytten witnessed traumatic sights as he tried to find survivors in cold, dark waters. The BC Building Trades thanks him for sharing his memories of the tragic incident.

(The interview has been edited for brevity.) * Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of death.

Tradetalk: What do you remember most about June 17, 1958?

Phil Nuytten: I was outside getting ready to go out on a diving job … and my office guy came rushing out and he was almost screaming, “Phil, Phil, you gotta hear this, you gotta hear this!”

So I walked inside to the dive shop and … there’s this voice coming over the radio screaming saying, “It’s falling, it’s falling!”

I assumed immediately it was the Lions Gate Bridge. So then I heard somebody call over the radio, he said, “No, no. It’s for the Second Narrows.”

I said, “Holy cow. I’m all set, I have all my stuff in the truck.”

So I told my guy, “Listen, call the cops, tell them I’ll meet with them. We need to get there as quick as we can.” The cops were really good. They came as quick as you can imagine and pulled over and I told them, “Can you break the way for me in the event that we’re not getting there fast enough? Turn your sirens on, we’ve gotta go over there. Guys are falling in the water and dying.”

So I got there … and I’d never seen a corpse before or a dead person at all. And I walk up, I put my gear out in the back of the truck and I’m putting all of my stuff on and I started looking and there were all these bodies lying there in a row and I thought, “Oh my God.” This was on the shore right next to the water. So these were ones that had been recovered somehow or had floated up.

The problem was that all of the ironworkers had to wear jackets, these things around your neck to keep you afloat so that if you fall off the bridge, you float. But the problem is they also had a big tool array around their waist and in most cases the tools overruled the buoyancy system. So if they fall, they can’t swim to shore, they can’t do anything. They just go to the bottom.

I hit the bottom first of all, and went not very far and there were two men standing on the bottom. One a little shorter than the other, currents were running pretty hard there … the guy’s hair was breathing in the current and I thought, “My God.” So I went over and I thought, “There’s no way this guy is alive.” And as I was going toward the second guy, he was walking and I thought, “What the? How can this be?”

So I roared over there and sure enough he was [moving his legs] along the bottom. His hair is going in that direction, his arms are [outstretched], I thought, “How can he be walking?” There was no point rushing him to the surface because he was obviously gone, mouth was open, but he seemed to be walking. And I got right by his legs and I could see what was going on. The current was running so fast that he was actually being pushed, by the current, right across his back, it was pushing him. So I thought, “Okay, there’s no point in hanging around here, these guys are gone.”

So I went right back to the surface and by that time we had a boat set up that I could get on and go to see if any of the guys who were in the water were still alive. I remember one particular guy was trying to climb up onto one of the huge iron girders. They had holes in them and this guy was trying to get up onto this girder and he couldn’t reach the cut in the girder. So I could see immediately what he was trying to do but he kept sliding off.

So I went down and got underneath him and got under his feet and then started to paddle like hell to push him up. And sure enough, I got him up to the girder and he climbed up to this hole and he crawled up onto it and broke water and got his head and shoulders out of it. So I rushed up after him, popped up and he was going like a bat out of hell up this girder. And I thought, “He never even said thank you,” and I said to myself, “You idiot, if you were him, you’d get the hell out of here just the way he’s doing.”

That was an incredible time.

Tradetalk: That’s a lot of trauma for you to experience. How did you feel in the days and weeks after that?

PN: I had a feeling that we couldn’t have done anything. For example, one of the guys was in some kind of a forklift and the water was about up to his chest and of course the tide was rising and the current was pretty strong and so I gotta get in there and try to grab him and pull him out. But how am I going to do that?

First of all, I gotta open the hatch and I don’t even know where it is. If I open that hatch, he’s gonna drown. I thought, “I think it’s open at the bottom,” so I ducked underneath and sure enough I came up and I could see his feet and I thought if I can get up high enough for him to get a great big breath and then I’ll drag him out and pop him to the surface.

And by that time, one of the guys that I had worked with quite often had joined me and was in the water. So sure enough, I got underneath there and managed to push the guy as hard as I could and I got my elbows on the side and started to lift him and there was a couple of little sounds and I thought, “What the hell’s going on here?” And so I came up and [my partner] was beside the machine and he was pointing at the guy and he [gestured] that the water’s over his head. So he drowned.

For a very long time I had all those thoughts running through my head, “Was there just some different way of doing this?”

And then to finish it off, I’d had our guys call one of the divers we had used quite a bit for our shop and only to find that by the time we finished the couple of days we were there, that he was gone.

Tradetalk: How did that day shape your life and shape your career to follow?

PN: That day was certainly something and every year we go down there and talk about what we did and what we saw and most of the guys that had been in the water there didn’t last very long and so it was kind of sad to think that, not only did the iron workers die, but some of our divers were lost. Later when they were looking to recover bodies even though they knew … one was one of our guys. Any bodies that he could bring up, and he did bring some up, but he never came back.

By Jeremy Allingham