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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Seventy five years ago today, an American dream became a reality in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public and people first walked across what was then the world's largest suspension bridge.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The country watched with fascination as the spinning of the mighty cables proceeded hundreds of feet above San Francisco Bay. The majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge was apparent even before the great span was complete.

MARTIN: The bridge was an ambitious feat of engineering. It took four years to complete and required the word of hundreds of men. KQED's Amy Standen reports.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: It was the middle of the Great Depression. Fred Brusati, born in Montana, left high school after a year and went looking for work.

FRED BRUSATI: One day I heard that they were going to start the Golden Gate Bridge. And I says, well, I'll try it. I've never been up 746 feet but I'll try it anyhow.

STANDEN: Getting a job on the Golden Gate Bridge was like winning the lottery.

SLIM LAMBERT: You hardly ever slowed down to a trot, you know. There was men waiting right there for a job if anybody slowed down a little.

STANDEN: Slim Lambert, like the others in this piece, was recorded in 1985 as part of an oral history project and has since died. He was a cowboy from Washington state, worked as a roustabout, carrying equipment, pouring concrete, making about ten dollars a day.

LAMBERT: Lots of men were fired right on the spot if the boss thought they were malingering a little bit.

STANDEN: This was before federal safety standards. The rule of thumb was that for every million dollars spent, one man would probably die. The bridge project cost $37 million, and yet nearly four years, it seemed charmed with an almost perfect safety record - until February 17, 1937. The task that day was to remove a temporary scaffold underneath the bridge platform. To reach it, workers had hung a catwalk. Each time they stripped off a section, they'd move the catwalk another few feet.

MARTIN ADAMS: They went on there and they stripped that one and started to move it.

STANDEN: Martin Adams came all the way from Arkansas to work the Bridge.

ADAMS: And when they started to move it, that's when it went down - 9:20 in the morning, it went down.

BRUSATI: See, I was working on the catwalk, right there around mid-span, and somebody said the catwalk is falling.

STANDEN: Fred Brusati rushed over, saw a man clinging to a piece of steel. He and a few others threw him a rope and hauled the man up.

BRUSATI: The man had a pipe in his mouth. He didn't drop the pipe or nothing. He just started to walk toward San Francisco and I never did see him back there again.

STANDEN: The real tragedy was below. Twelve men had fallen 220 feet into the water.

LAMBERT: People ask me what went through your mind?

STANDEN: One of them was Slim Lambert.

LAMBERT: The only thing that went through my mind was survival. I knew that to have a prayer to survive I had to hit the water feet first.

STANDEN: But when Lambert hit the water, his legs tangled in a piece of netting which had collapsed along with the catwalk.

LAMBERT: And that's the only time I panicked during that whole thing. I was caught in the net and the net was headed for the bottom.

STANDEN: Lambert was a strong swimmer. He kicked and kicked and eventually freed himself. He had plunged so deep that when he surfaced he was bleeding from his ears. Bridge debris was everywhere.

LAMBERT: I got a couple of planks together for myself at first and then I saw Fred thrashing about so I got him.

STANDEN: That was 24-year old Fred Dummatzen. Lambert pulled him up onto the floating planks and waited.

LAMBERT: I heard this power boat coming in - putt, putt, putt.

STANDEN: A crab fisherman coming in from sea.

LAMBERT: And he was almost by and he took another look around and his eye hit me. And what I relief. I figured, by gosh, we're going to make it.

STANDEN: Dummatzen didn't make it. Today there's a plaque on the western side of the bridge dedicated to him and the nine others who were lost that day. Hundreds of men helped build the Golden Gate Bridge. The last of the workers died in April. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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MARTIN: And thousands of people are expected to gather today to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bridge. Among the day's highlights, the Golden Gate Brass Band using actual pieces of the bridge as percussion instruments for their performance of "A Concert Overture for Brass, Steel Girders and Suspension Cables." You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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