In the mid-seventies, it was decided to construct a new periphery road around Paris to facilitate the traffic, and therefore several new bridges needed to be built to allow the crossing off the Seine River.
One of the first works carried out during the construction of a bridge pier is to beat a curtain of steel sheet piles around the construction zone, which then allow the workers to work dry.
At the end of the job, the cofferdam is removed by either extracting the sheet piles or as most of the time in those years, by cutting them underwater at the bottom level.
In the summer of 1978, four new pillars had been constructed and the cofferdams were now ready to be removed.
In total, 700 linear meters had to be cut underwater but to avoid fluvial traffic jam, the contract stipulated that the four cofferdams had to be cut and removed within a period of 10 days.
As expected the contract had been awarded to a well-known French diving company, who had planned to do the work with 6 divers.
So they started to cut the first cofferdam with steel tubular electrodes, but at the end of the second day, the technical manager of the company grow in panic because within 2 days, they only managed to cut and remove 20 meters of the total length, and if the job was going on like that, for sure, they were going to pay big fines for the delay.
So, the same evening, the guy made a phone call to the Director of a Brussels diving firm to see if by chance he did know some good cutter divers to help them.
I don’t know exactly was said between the two managers, but at the end of the discussion it was clear that the Belgian company had taken up the cutting part of the contract while the French would support the recovery of the sheet piles with the crane pontoon.
And this is how the next day I retrieved myself in Paris with my tender, my diving and my burning gear to realize the complete cutting of 2 cofferdams within the next 5 days (the 2 other cofferdams had been given to an old Dutch hard hat diver).
Since the beginning of my career, I always liked cutting job’s and in those days I was very specialized (excuse my lack of modesty) in the handling of the underwater burning torch, so I choose to make this job with the old French PICARD burning torch which was and still is (if we except the Messer Griesheim petrol torch) one of the most performing burner ever made.
To meet the challenge, I had made an agreement with my employer to be paid per cutting meters instead of my daily rate.
Working conditions were really good, nice warm and shallow water and at least 15 cm (1/2 foot) visibility which was sufficient to see the flame of the torch.
Everything went perfect and during the first four days I spend about 5 to 6 hours in the water to cut my required length (70 m), leaving only very small bridges on designed sheet piles in order to prevent them to collapse.
It was now Friday and I was working in the last cofferdam. There in one corner we had noticed that remains of a concrete stanchion was still hanging in the back of 2 sheet piles, so before entering the water, I asked my tender to take a crowbar and a sledge hammer to make the concrete block fall while I was cutting in another place.
While I was cutting, I could hear my colleague slam on the block during a few minutes, then after some time I asked him if he had managed to drop it off.
I expected to receive a “YES”, but instead it was a “NO” but he immediately added that I had not to worry because the remains of the concrete held really well in place and was not due to fall...
OK I said while continuing my cut towards that point.
To pass the time, I was already thinking at the party we were going to have that night in the Parisian discos.
In the meantime I had arrived in the corner of the cofferdam and took a special care to insist a bit more in the cutting of the slots, when suddenly: AIE!!! SHIT!!!! The fucking concrete block had come loose and fallen on my right foot.
Immediately my tender jumped on the phone to ask if I was all right.
Yes I’m all right I said, but why the hell didn’t you warned me the block was coming loose!
In fact what had happened?
Like I said, underwater burning torches are more powerful than the oxy- arc or exothermic torch, but the constant flow of gas coming out of the torch has a tendency to generate a vibration strain in the metal piece and this particularly if some material is present at the rear of the scarf and this is what had happened.
OK, my foot was hurting me, but not enough to make me stop.
The rest of the curtain was cut without problems and at the end of the day, I phoned my boss to say that the job was complete.
That night, we went to the Palace a very reputed disco club, but instead of doing the John Travolta on the dancing floor like I had planned, I had to stay seated at the bar.
Conclusion: Never cut under a piece that can fall.