One day in late October 1909, a man wearing a heavy steel and leather harness to support his head and neck visited the newspaper office of the Tamaqua Courier.
Despite his obvious discomfort, W. Teddy Peters said he was not looking for sympathy and that he had never asked for charity. Instead, he wanted to share his survival story with the newspaper readers.
"Tamaqua was honored today with a visit from the man who claims that he is the only living individual with a broken neck," the Courier reported.
Peters was indeed a walking miracle. Most remarkable was how he suffered the devastating injury.
Two years earlier, as a member of the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, he was working on what was then the largest bridge of its kind in the world – a cantilever to span the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River about seven miles above Quebec City.
On Aug. 29, 1907, a 20,000-ton section of the bridge fell 300 feet into the St. Lawrence River, killing 86 workers. It collapsed in just 15 seconds, shaking the whole countryside. Inhabitants rushed out of their houses thinking they were experiencing an earthquake.
Of the 92 men working on the bridge at the time, only six were rescued alive. Most of the victims either drowned or were crushed by the falling girders. Many were killed on impact, but some remained trapped in the twisted steel only to be drowned in the slowly rising tide.
In covering the disaster, one of the worst in Canadian history, The Manitoba Free Press described a heart-wrenching scene.
"The horror of the situation is increased by the fact that there are a number of wounded men pinned in the wreckage near the shore," it stated. "Their groans and shrieks can be plainly heard by the anxious crowds who are waiting at the water's edge, but nothing so far can be done to rescue them or relieve their sufferings in the slightest degree. There are no search lights available and by the feeble light of lanterns it is impossible to even locate the sufferers, so that for the present nothing whatever can be done but leave them to their fate."
The Manitoba Press reported that Quebec residents also had a hard time believing such a disaster was possible. Crowds gathered around the newspaper office waiting for further news before a report finally confirmed that practically every man working on the bridge at the time had been killed.
Construction of the bridge was being done by Phoenix Bridge Company, which had hired workers at 50 cents an hour from all over the United States and Canada. The company would have preferred only non-union men but they found they needed skilled workers for this job.
Many of the early ironworkers had been Irish and Scandinavian sailors or Americans who were used to clambering up ships' masts. Of the men who died, 33 were Canadian-Indian ironworkers.
Leading up to the disaster, many of the workers had shown dissatisfaction. When a man quit, the company would deduct from his wages the amount they had paid for his transportation to and from the work site. Two weeks before the collapse many of the men had gone on strike because of the poor working conditions, but voted to go back to work on Aug. 10.
While inspecting the bridge on Aug. 26 and 27, engineers noticed that some of the cantilever arms were bending. The general foremen disregarded the report and told the men to continue working.
At the time of the collapse, Peters heroically sacrificed his own life to save his fellow workers. During the rescue attempt, he fell 300 feet "fracturing almost every bone in his body," the newspaper stated.
The reporter said Peters hit the ground, the impact caused him to bite through his tongue. His most severe injury though was a broken neck.
His heart-wrenching ordeal produced another tragedy. After receiving the news of his injuries, Peters' wife went into shock and died a short time afterward. Despite losing his wife and being told by doctors that he shouldn't expect to live much longer, Peters remained positive.
"He is determined to survive as long as possible and do what he can to make a living," the Courier stated.
Although making a living would be almost impossible in his condition, Peters expected a settlement of $50,000 from the bridge company, s sum that would make life a bit easier. He planned to use the money "to buy himself a little home and stay in it until the end that he considers not far distant," the Courier reported.
The newspaper said he had an aged mother and twin sons living in New York. They planned to stay with him after he bought the home.
The bridge construction was restarted in 1913 and completed in August 1919.