I live within walking distance of the West Gate Bridge, I have for most of my life (or most of its life, since I was born before the bridge was built). I moved away for a few years in my twenties to live in a series of inner-city share houses and to travel, but I came back in the mid 1980s and have lived in Yarraville ever since. I see the bridge most days, usually several times a day. It is one of my Melbourne landmarks—like the Yarra and the Maribyrnong rivers, like the Eureka Towers, and the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral, it gives me my bearings.
On summer evenings, I am often drawn to taking a walk along the Stony Creek Walkway that extends across the breakwater to the Yarra. It is an ideal place to savour the fresh sea breeze that flows along the river from Williamstown, to watch the container ships make their way out of the bay and the birds playing in the wetlands. From here the bridge is a monolithic structure towering over the river, but I can rarely make it all the way to the end of the Stony Creek Walkway before I am overwhelmed by sadness.
In her book Traumascapes, Maria Tumarkin writes that there is a ‘distinctive category of places transformed physically and psychically by suffering’. They are ‘trauma-scapes’, she argues, because they are more than just the ‘physical settings of tragedies: they emerge as spaces, where events are experienced and re-experienced across time’.
Some days I don’t notice the bridge at all, going to and from the shops, the university, the city, but other days I go kilometres out of the way to avoid driving over the bridge, to avoid the moment I reach the top and remember the men who died building it. And the hundreds of people who, over the last 40 years (until the erection of the suicide prevention barrier), have committed suicide by leaping off the West Gate Bridge into the Yarra River, among them a close friend of mine.
It was 15 October 1970. At 11.50 am, 2000 tonnes of steel fell 45 metres. There were more than 60 men on the site. There were men on the span itself, men inside the hollow of the span and in the construction huts below. Survivors recall the sound of the bridge groaning, an eerie pinging noise, the bolts turning blue and rivets popping like bullets from a machine gun. Thirty-five men were killed. Many of the survivors carry lifelong injuries and are still haunted by the tragedy.
I was in my first year at Footscray Girls High School. I remember the principal’s voice over the loudspeaker, solemn and tentative, not her usual officious don’t-fuck-with-me tone, as she explained there’d been an accident on the bridge. I remember a hushed silence descending on the normally noisy class; the sound of ambulances and police sirens, of helicopters overhead.
It is one of the worst industrial accidents in Victoria’s history and most Melburnians over 45 remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that part of the West Gate Bridge had collapsed. Across the city there were reports from witnesses that the span was there one minute and gone the next.
When I arrived home later that day, my neighbours were out on the street. Anxious groups of men and women gathered in front of the milk bar, on verandahs and in driveways gazing in the direction of the bridge, in the direction of the smoke and the dust. They spoke to each other in various languages—Italian, Spanish, Greek, Macedonian and English—they shook their heads, they cried, they vented their anger. Almost everyone knew someone whose father or grandfather, brother or husband worked or had worked on the bridge and they all understood the dangers and hazards of this kind of work. Everyone’s father and many of our mothers were factory workers, or labourers on a building site, on the railways or the wharves, where accidents happened often. Workers died at work; men and women were injured at work. My father had almost broken his back in one accident; he’d lost half a finger, lucky not to have lost his whole arm, in another.
For the next week we sat in front of the television and read the newspapers, holding our collective breaths as we waited to hear who had died and who had survived. Some men’s bodies were never fully recovered. Nine months later the Report of the Royal Commission into the Failure of the West Gate Bridge 1970–71 was published. The commission reported:
There can be no doubt that the particular action which precipitated the collapse of the span 10–11 was the removal of a number of bolts from the transverse splice in the upper flange plating near the mid-span. These bolts were removed in an attempt to straighten out a buckle which had occurred in one of the eight panels which constitute the upper flange …
To attribute the failure of the bridge to this single action of removing the bolts would be entirely misleading …
While the commission found that companies, especially Freeman, Fox and Partners (designers) and World Services and Con-struc-tion (contractors), were to blame, all the other parties, including the unions and the men were criticised. As well as issues with the structural design and construction methods, the site had been plagued, according to the report, by poor communication and decision-making. Construction was substantially over budget as well as behind schedule (it was meant to be finished by the end of December 1970, but wasn’t opened until 1978 and it cost $202 million, way over the initial estimate of £11 million or $22 million).
The most quoted lines of the report say much about the circumstances leading up to the collapse: ‘Error begat error … and the events which led to the disaster moved with the inevitability of a Greek Tragedy.’
As a child and adolescent, I loved ghost stories and movies, especially the ones in which the ghosts refused to vacate their houses, testing each new occupant until finally someone arrived who would not be shifted. My favourite ghosts were never particularly frightening or malicious but they’d often been hard done by—they’d died early or tragically or at the hands of some evil enemy. These ghosts could not move on until their story had been told, given life, until justice was restored.
I was brought up in a Catholic Sicilian household. My mother loved Bible stories, and stories about saints who martyred their lives for their faith. My paternal grandmother (though she too was Catholic) had a love for the pagan rituals, the characters in her stories were sinister ghosts whose intent could not be trusted and animal spirits that plagued newborns. Maybe not surprisingly, I grew up to become an atheist. I believe that dead is dead, I don’t believe in an afterlife, in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in the kinds of ghosts that rattle shutters and bang doors.
But I do believe that some places, events, stories and people haunt us. Or to be more accurate, we are haunted by them. The psychoanalyst Stephen Frosh writes that people are made ‘ghostly’ because their voices have been silenced, their histories made invisible. Frosh is using haunting and ghosts as metaphors to talk about the way that past tragedies, and atrocities, past secrets and lies can linger, be inherited, and continue to haunt us until they are acknowledged, until there is some recognition, repatriation, forgiveness.
Australian history is spilling over with false narratives written by and for the benefit of those who are in power, narratives that actively obliterate the voices and stories of those who have fallen victim to that power … Indigenous Australians, women, migrants and refugees, the working class … The ghosts of the West Gate do not make appearances (at least not to me), they don’t howl in the night, but they are there, insistent, their voices rising out of the river to grab me.
Stephen Frosh writes that ‘psychoanalysis and haunting go together’ because ‘psycho-analysis intentionally stirs up demons’. I think the same might be said of fiction writing; writers are haunted by ideas, by stories, by characters real and imagined.
One of the ongoing arguments I had with my mother over the years was about my desire to stir up the past. She saw it as muck raking. ‘Stop writing,’ she demanded after having a cousin read her a memoir piece I had published in the Age. ‘Why can’t you just remember the good things?’
My mother also told family stories, but in these she tended to remake people into better versions of themselves, she was sentimental and nostalgic. The ‘bad’ things, the stories she wanted to forget, haunted her at night, they turned into nightmares, but she refused to tell them. When snippets came out accidentally or via aunts and uncles less concerned with keeping the good name of the family intact, I was hungry for them. It seemed to me that it was just these stories—of arguments, of affairs and betrayals—that brought me closer to my mother and to her parents, whom I never met, closer to understanding myself. As Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, ‘Working Class Hero’ was one of my favourite John Lennon songs. I played this song often when I was an undergraduate at Melbourne University, where the working class were fairly thin on the ground. ‘A working class hero is something to be’—the lyrics rang true for me, but in ways I was struggling to understand as a young working-class woman longing for an education, a woman with aspirations beyond my class. At the time, I subscribed to Lennon’s view (in the song) that workers, my parents among them, were being ‘doped with religion and sex and TV’ and would remain poor and exploited. However, I was also proud of my working-class background. It had shaped me politically and morally. While in some places (especially literature tutorials) I felt inadequate next to my middle-class peers, whose knowledge of the arts and literature I didn’t think I could ever catch up with, it is also true that often their middle-class attitudes and what I saw as their lack of understanding of what the world was ‘really’ like for most people annoyed me. I had little tolerance for it.
But there is nothing heroic about working-class work. It is often poorly paid, physically straining, dangerous—and workers have very little autonomy or power. The men who died when the West Gate collapsed were not heroes, just ordinary blokes who went to work on 15 October but did not come home.
Among the men who died were Jouzaf Ozelis, 23, of North Altona, who was about to celebrate his engagement to 19-year-old Regina Buzinkas; Robert West, a 24-year-old boilermaker, was married with three children and his wife pregnant with their fourth child; Cyril Carmichael was 19 years old and living in North Fitzroy, had only been working on the bridge for ten days and was about to announce his engagement to Glenys Fone; George Tsihilidis, 32, had sold his blacksmith shop in Greece to come to Australia, he and his wife had saved for eight years to buy a home and they had two sons; Ross Bigmore, 22, of Reservoir, was a carpenter and he and his fiancée Maureen Jones were to be married on Melbourne Cup Day; Tony Falzon, 32, a Maltese migrant, had been in Australia less than 10 years, he was a carpenter and a father of five; and foreman Charles Lund, 41, who was about to leave the bridge and move with his wife, Leigh, and their seven children to Queensland.
Bill Hitchings, in his book West Gate, quotes Mavis Harburn, whose husband Bill was killed, saying, ‘He loved that damned bridge.’ He also tells the story of Jack Grist and Fred Upsdell, who had been
mates since they met in Middlesex, England, more than 20 years ago. On migrating they had become neighbours at Altona, not far from the West Gate Bridge … Jack, 54, went on to become a foreman on the bridge and Fred, 66, took a job as storeman because he couldn’t stand the thought of retiring. But it wouldn’t be long before the bridge was finished and they could both get on with a spot of fishing. Meanwhile, the way they went on about ‘their bridge’ to their wives and friends you’d swear they were the only two building it.
The men’s love of the bridge was associated with the pride they took in their work and with the symbolic nature of the West Gate Bridge in the imagination of the city. It wasn’t only the workers, Melburnians were watching and waiting with anticipation for this bridge that was going to be bigger and better than the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Hundreds visited the site, standing on the viewing platform to watch its progress. It’s that love which haunts me when I stroll along the Stony Creek Walkway, when I drive over the West Gate. And the injustice and tragedy, that these workers were the ones who paid with their lives for poor decisions that they had no role in making.
On 15 October every year a memorial ceremony is held under the bridge; survivors, friends and family remember their workmates. There is a memorial plaque, garden and sculpture under the bridge; the plaque was paid for by the workers—the union members, who wanted to ensure that their mates were not forgotten. The survivors have continued over the years to tell their story whenever they’ve had the opportunity but while there is usually some reporting of the tragedy on the anniversary every year, when the survivors gather with their families and the families and friends of the victims, the story is largely forgotten. Certainly, I have found that in my classrooms there are rarely more than one or two who know the bridge collapsed during construction.
Instead the West Gate is a bridge that has become a traffic nightmare during peak hour, inadequate for the continually expanding city and the growing outer western suburbs, so now there are plans for a tunnel (an idea dismissed by the government when it was suggested in the 1960s), which will be built over the next decade.
While it is important to acknowledge the work, the talent, the skill of the architects, designers, engineers, policymakers and politicians whose imagination leads to the transformation of our cities and to ensuring they meet our needs, it’s also important that we do not forget the men and women who do the work on the ground (and in the sky) to construct those imaginings in the real world.
The survivors, traumatised, still grieving, returned to finish the bridge in 1972; they did it even though there were ongoing issues with safety and conditions, they did it in the name of their dead mates. But it’s not the bridge that is their legacy. Many of these men took what happened on the bridge and worked tirelessly for many years to make workplaces safer for workers. They became actively involved in the union movement, as union officials, industrial officers and occupational health and safety officers. They used the tragedy to fight for change. As the then CFMEU Victorian state secretary, Martin Kingham, told those gathered in 2003 at the thirty-second anniversary:
It is important that we don’t let the memory die. It is important to keep in touch with each other. We need to remind a new generation of construction workers of the legacy of the workers who died here. We need to remain vigilant on issues of health and safety and remember what can happen if we leave this task to employers.
Every year thousands of workers are injured at work. Every year hundreds of men and women die in work-related accidents. According to Work Safe Australia the number of fatalities is dropping but the statistics continue to be alarming. In the 14 years from 2003 to 2016, 3414 workers lost their lives in work-related incidents. In 2016, there were 182 worker fatalities. While this is the lowest number since 2003 it is devastating to think that these men and women, like the men who worked on the West Gate, died as a result of accidents in their workplace. In the week I wrote the bulk of this essay, two young Melbourne construction workers lost their lives. Never step onto a work site without belonging to a union was one of the few things my father and I agreed on.
My parents worked hard all their lives so that their children would have an education and access to white-collar work. When I was a child and my mother worked in a textile factory in Flinders Lane, my brother and I were invited to the annual Christmas party along with the children of the other women who worked there. The workers were all migrant women, from various European countries (it was the early 1960s and most migrants were from southern Europe); they brought plates of food to contribute to the feast and the boss, a Polish man in his fifties, provided the drinks.
I remember how stuffy the place was, how the women worked right until the moment the siren rang. I remember how stressed my mother was every night when she came home, especially if she had not reached her target for the day (often impossible because of errors in the cutting or machine breakdowns). I remember how gracious the women were to their boss that day, even though he’d been overworking and underpaying them for years, and how angry I felt on their behalf.
My mother wanted me to have an office job. She was not so keen on university, worrying that if I went it would expand the distance between us. She was right of course, and there were many arguments as I forged a life she could not understand. But I am grateful she let me study. Being a writer and an academic was beyond what she had imagined for me, and even beyond what I had dared to imagine for myself. Our working lives could not be more different. I find myself irritated when colleagues use working-class metaphors—the factory floor, the assembly line—to describe our work. There is no comparison.
I was 12 when I first read William Dick’s novel A Bunch of Ratbags and realised that narratives about people like my neighbours from places such as Footscray could be the stuff of literature. It was that realisation that made me want to be a writer, to tell the stories of the people in my neighbourhood—the people like the men who built the West Gate Bridge. Ordinary men and women, with ordinary lives. Without their stories, the city will always be haunted, and its history incomplete. •
Note: Some sections of this essay have their origin in an article, ‘Writing working class ghosts’, published in TEXT: Journal of writing and writing courses.
Enza Gandolfo is the author of two novels, The Bridge and Swimming (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award). She is an honorary professor in creative writing at Victoria University.