One of my strongest and enduring memories from my first year of school in 1970 was sitting on the floor during show and tell and our teacher, Mrs Wilson drawing on the black board, the Westgate Bridge. She proceeded to tell us how the bridge had collapsed the day before. She left us with the words that have never left me, “Many children’s fathers did not come home yesterday”. It was probably when i first recognised that the world was not a safe place.
The Westgate Bridge was a long planned connection between Melbourne’s east and west, across the lower reaches of the Yarra River. Construction commenced in 1968, and two years later just before lunch on October 15th, there was a loud crack, and the span that was being installed between pier 10 and 11 on the western side came crashing to the ground. 35 workers were killed, and 18 more injured. Most were killed in the work huts below, enjoying their lunch break. Workers on site performed much of the rescue and retrieval of bodies. They were given a day off and then when they returned to work the next day, they were stood down, sacked, as construction ceased while the government held a Royal Commission. There was no psychosocial support or income support, and many of the survivors felt cut adrift. But don’t listen to me, let the the survivors let the story in this video made for the 40th anniversary. It remains Australia’s worst industrial accident.
The Westgate was one of four bridges in the world that were built in this particular style. Two of them collapsed. When the bridge opened my parents refused to use it. I am not sure if it was the stingyness of having to pay a toll or superstition. I suspect it was the latter as I recall we were confronted by the Severn bridge in the west of the UK, built by the same company and collapsed not long before the Westgate did. My mother was adamant that we weren’t crossing it. She was finally convinced, as the round trip added hours to the journey.
Since the collapse, the bridge has been a silent accumulator of tragedy. My sister, who worked at the Footscray Psychiatric Hospital on the western side, looked after the people who they talked back from the edge. It was at least one a week. I, at Prince Henry’s, on the eastern side, looked after those that jumped and survived. I spent a lot of time with a young guy, my age, when all too much, he took the step out over the abyss. He said he had a moment of clarity before passing out on the way down. He came to in the water, with a shattered neck, but managed to swim to shore. We rebuilt his neck, and he rebuilt his life. And of course the tragedy of Darcy Freeman, a man’s inability to contain his rage and desire to hurt the mother of his children in the worst way imaginable, as he threw his 4 year old daughter from the bridge. This brought change.
The Westgate has a place in our local culture and an example of how the arts are important in documenting pivotal events so we don’t forget. There is a memorial under the bridge, funded by the workers on the bridge. 35 poles, all different sizes, representing all the different types of people who died on the bridge. Lucy Guerin’s Structures and Sadness is an extraordinarily powerful dance piece. The final scene, where a dancer walks over a board held by another dancer lying flat on the floor is both chilling and moving, a reminder that we daily travel over the site of tragic death. Enza Gandolfo’s Stella Prize nominated book The Bridge documents the impact of the tragedy on an immigrant family. The wonderful Orbweavers call out to the Westgate stretching across the sky, and does the indominable Jeff Lang. And of course, who better to sing about human fragility in a muscular way, but Mark Seymour’s in his anthemic Westgate
The Westgate looms large in my life. I have run over it, I have ridden over it, I have driven over it many times. There is always a slight unease. The bridge is safe, say the engineers. That’s what the engineers said to the men in 1970. But, a trip over it is majestic, with its sweeping curves (my friend Joe said once he is likely to lose his licence on the bridge, and one morning, topping out at 190kmh, he said). The vistas heading west give the sens of possibility, the vistas heading east return. I have paddled underneath the engineering marvel. It reminds me, though, and here, 50 years on, the importance of taking harm out of the system, whether on industrial sites or in the community. We want people’s parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends to come home at night.