Australia’s worst modern industrial accident occurred on 15 October 1970, when a 2000-ton span of the West Gate Bridge fell during construction. Thirty-five bridge workers died and a further eighteen were injured.
The play The Bridge, written by Vicki Reynolds in 1990, tells the stories of these workers using verbatim techniques and a contemporary narrative in which a family touched by the disaster prepares for a barbeque to mark the anniversary of the collapse.
An excerpt of the play is republished here, alongside a discussion between community theatre maker Donna Jackson and artist Bindi Cole Chocka (daughter of Vicki Reynolds), who remounted the play recently for the 2018 Arts & Industry Festival.
Donna Jackson: I was working at Footscray Community Arts Centre and used to drive under the West Gate Bridge to go to work. I would notice people standing under the bridge at different times – family groups, people by themselves, couples. Eventually I pulled up and saw this memorial to thirty-five workers who had died.
I wanted to make theatre only about things that were important and I thought that we could use a process where we showed respect to those stories. So I invited Vicki Reynolds to work with us, to write the script.
We spent a lot of time going to different picket lines until people started to tell us their stories. When we started researching it, some people said to us, you shouldn’t do a play about the collapse because thirty-five people died. But most people said to us, because thirty-five workers died, you should tell this story.
Bindi is Vicki’s daughter, and when we were first making the play, Bindi was a teenager and she came to the demonstrations.
Bindi Cole Chocka: I went to some of the interviews of the workers, as well. And I sat at home with my mum as she sat in the sunroom for hours and typed. I got to experience the various things that she was experiencing as she was producing this creative work, which was a real defining thing for me, to be brought into her work, her creative process. And then, of course, I performed in the play.
I remember all of those exciting parts – going to the interviews and going into the bridge. But I also remember watching her for hours and hours and hours, typing away, then calling out to me, ‘How does this sound? How does that sound?’
It was such a sweet time in my life. But then the following year, she passed away. So I think that really cemented that time and those memories as something to be valued and treasured because that’s all I have of her. And her legacy to me, I think, is her writing [and her] teaching me how to mine the self and other people’s stories, to tell these authentic and real stories, and to take risks and not be afraid.
DJ: I was working with a community theatre group called Foot and Mouth, and there were about eighteen people in that group – two men, sixteen women. Lots of lesbians and strident women, and we sent them out to do a play about a bridge collapse and to research the thirty-five men who died.
There was a picket happening on Kororoit Creek Road (Williamstown) about a paint colour that was said to be a carcinogen. People would go along and then report back on what they’d been told or what they heard. We would improvise scenes and then pick out the stories we thought were important.
BCC: One of the ideas that emerged [when discussing possible collaborations for the 2018 festival] was remounting the play. So we had a read-through to see what it was like twenty-seven years later. One of the things that came up was that we remembered a story about the union hiring Aboriginal musicians.
DJ: Through Paddy Garrity, who was doing arts work for the union. He was contacted by Bobby McLeod who said, ‘I’m coming to Melbourne and can I stay at your house with my two friends, and we’re looking for places to play music.’ Paddy invited Bobby to go on to the bridge in 1974 and to play for the workers at lunchtime. They passed around a bucket after their performance, and got $600, so they were pretty happy. Paddy took them back to the bridge a couple more times and around to some other workplaces.
BCC: So we worked that new thread into the script. Otherwise, we didn’t really change the text, not in any significant way. It’s a beautifully powerful, poignant rendering of this historical narrative and it just didn’t need too much.
DJ: There was an arts practice developed in the 1980s called ‘art in working life’, where theatre groups worked really hard to have unions involved in art-making.
BCC: When Donna and my mum were working together, she was at Melbourne Workers Theatre. She was a writer in residence there, and she’d written Taxi with Patricia Cornelius. She also wrote her own place called Daily Grind about the daily lives of strippers. So I grew up with artists who were making art about working life, and Donna’s never stopped doing that.
Oftentimes the arts are seen as something elitist, snobby. But if you have artists in all different artforms telling real stories about real workers in real life, then those people are going to come and participate in the arts as well. But they may not, if their stories are not being told.
DJ: People don’t understand why we have so much health and safety today – they need to remember that a bridge collapsed and thirty-five husbands, partners, sons died. They trusted the engineers who told them that bridge was safe and back then, the health and safety rules weren’t clear enough.
When people say that unions are really hardcore on health and safety, they need to know that it goes back to that collapse. After that, a whole lot of health and safety changed in Australia and it changed for the better.
Now, I’m getting calls and texts from all these bridge workers who are organising to come and see the play and to come and speak at the festival symposium. They’ve got a lot to say, even this many years after the collapse. They didn’t get debriefing, they didn’t get counselling and they’ve still got a lot to talk about it. They want this story remembered.
BCC: And it’s generational. Maybe that generation that was involved in the collapse, a lot of them have passed away. But their families, their sons, their daughters are still carrying those stories. It’s as fresh for them today as it was back then.
This play tells the story of two [related] families, their present-day concerns, and their involvement in the history of building the West Gate Bridge. It is twenty years since the disaster and as the family works they talk about their memories of the bridge, good, bad, humorous and tragic.
Pat Costanzo lost her husband in the bridge collapse.
Michelle Costanzo [her daughter] works in the office of a chemical plant in the Western suburbs. She was only about three years old at the time of her father’s death.
Jack Heffernan [her brother] is an old-style trade unionist who worked on the bridge.
[PAT and MICHELLE are clearing up after lunch]
Pat: Bring in those plates, will you love?
Michelle: I am Mum.
Pat: Sorry, usually have to ask you.
Michelle: It should be good next week.
Pat: It’ll be good for you to meet the people who worked with your Dad.
Michelle: Mum, what happened that day?
Pat: What day?
Michelle: The day Dad died.
Pat: He died, like the other thirty-four men.
Michelle: That’s not what I meant. I want to know what happened.
[PAT is obviously distressed by the question]
I know it hurts you to talk about it but it hurts me that you won’t.
Pat: I didn’t know you felt like that.
Michelle: You never talk about it.
Pat: It’s hard for me Michelle, I haven’t allowed myself to think about it. I couldn’t, you were only three. I had to keep going for you.
Michelle: I want to know Mum.
Pat: I heard it on the television, a newsflash. I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, this isn’t real, it’s not happening. Gino always said, nothing would bring it down, not even an earthquake. I’ll never forget the site It looked like a bomb had dropped. They wouldn’t let us through. All we could do was wait. I don’t know how long we were there. Must’ve been hours. They kept bringing men past us on stretchers but none of them were him. I knew what your father had on that day, the colour of his shirt, his boots. One man said he’d seen him near his car. So I ignored all the others who’d said he was on the span and pinned my hopes on that one story.
[As PAT tells the story lights come up on the wall of the garage. One by one women enter to wait at the barrier for news of their loved ones. There are blue lights flashing and the sounds of sirens are heard. WOMAN ONE waits for news of her brother and shows grief as his body is found. WOMAN TWO finds her husband and shows joy at this news. WOMAN THREE also finds her husband and begins to leave but returns to comfort WOMAN FOUR who is pregnant and has heard no news. TWO SCHOOL CHILDREN arrive in search of their fathers, they push through the other women and crouch at the front of the barrier. IRENE enters and goes to the kitchen area to collect PAT. They embrace and run to the barrier. MICHELLE remains in the kitchen and is witness to what is going on. One of the children’s fathers is found safe. The other child’s father has been killed. They support each other and exit. One woman remains at the barriers with PAT and IRENE. The actors hold for a moment as a spot is lit centre stage. PAT and IRENE move into this light. The sirens drop out and music comes up.]
West Gate Bridge Ballad: Women’s Lament
I wait, I will not go
I cannot move until I’m told
Hours and minutes pass
Have you seen him, is he safe at last.
I woke up this morning, don’t know if I said goodbye
I just believed he’d come back to me,
It’s cold here, and all you’ve got is a thin shirt on
So cold here but you’ll find me waiting
Can’t go home
On my own
Time it passes by
Through needless loss, no reasons why.
My life forever changed
And anger finds me wanting to blame.
A child will be waiting, I’ve got to think of her
Find the strength, got to face this day
You know that you’re always in my heart
As one, so sleep within me
I must go home
On my own
[PAT and IRENE embrace and exit.]
[Sound of sirens and digging machinery comes up. Workers move around the stage in semi-darkness, as if they are involved in the rescue. In reality they are laying thirty-five pairs of work boots at the front of the stage. As they work each one moves to a spot and as that spot is lit deliver a monologue.]
We did what we could
Providing comfort with sandwiches, hot drinks. An ear to listen, a kind word.
I felt so useless handing them cups of tea. Seeing the horror on their faces.
I wanted to do more. But I did what I could.
We did the best we could with what we had.
And what we had was nothing much. No equipment, no radios.
I stripped down to my underwear. Tied a rope around my waist.
Got the others to hold onto it.
And in I went, to pull their bodies from the mud.
We were there in ten minutes.
The span was lying across the backwash.
A tangled mess of steel with bodies underneath it.
Too many injured. Too many dead.
It was chaos.
The injured were lying there without blankets
while the dead were covered.
I had to find my husband.
A policeman was there so I asked him
if I could go through.
‘No, no-one’s allowed through’, he said.
‘Please I have to find Pete.’
He pointed to the collapsed span and said,
‘Well if he’s not under the rubble, he’ll be around somewhere.’
I’ll never forget that, never.
I’d only just come down in the lift.
We were going to the Vic for lunch.
I looked up to see if the foreman was watching.
When I saw it start to go. I ran for my life.
I must’ve had good instincts, because I ran the right way.
The gust of wind from the falling span blew me to safety.
Later, they asked me to identify my mates.
I could tell who they were from their boots.
Nothing else was recognisable.
[As these first monologues finish the workers stand in line looking at the row of boots which are now lit along the front of the stage. WORKER SIX moves forward and gently picks up a single pair of boots before speaking.]
After the rescue was over
We had to clean up the site.
I thought I’d hardened during that night
But there was worse to come.
We took buckets and rags
and cleaned up all trace of our mates.
[He places the pair of boots on a stretcher. The others move forward and each lovingly places a single pair of boots on the stretcher. This continues until there is one pair of boots left. The workers line up beside the stretcher as the last monologue is delivered.]
[Picks up the last pair of boots]
We went to seventeen funerals in one day. God it was hard.
But you want to do the right thing, show people you care.
Give them your support, but by the end of that week,
[Gently places boots on stretcher]
There was nothing left to give.
[The stretcher is lifted as in a funeral with actors as pall bearers, three on either side, with the last walking behind in a solemn and respectful manner. They exit.]
[PAT returns to MICHELLE in the kitchen]
Pat: When I went home that night they still hadn’t found him, but I knew inside me that he was gone.
Michelle: I’ve missed him.
Pat: I’ve never stopped missing him. He had his faults, that’s for sure, but I loved him. [Pause] I didn’t know what to tell you. For such a long time you’d ask ‘Where’s Daddy, when’s he coming?’
Michelle: When did they find him?
Pat: The next day. It was unbearable. Jack went down to identify him. I couldn’t do it.
[MICHELLE enters, determined to hear the rest of the story. JACK is working on the garage with DANNY.]
Michelle: Mum just told me you identified my Dad’s body.
Jack: It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Michelle: What happened Uncle Jack?.
Jack: It’s twenty years ago. Leave it alone.
Michelle: Nobody wants to talk about it, you all avoid the issue. I’m his daughter, I have a right to know.
Jack: I was working over on the eastern side when I heard this huge cracking sound. I looked across and the span was gone. We all ran, jumped into the boat and went across. We knew what we’d find and we were scared. There was nothing but the twisted metal of the span and dust and dirt and mud. Men lay everywhere, dead and dying. We could hear the injured screaming. I was crying as I got out of the boat. Later on I was just numb.
Michelle: I just can’t understand how you could let it happen.
Jack: You think I haven’t asked myself that in the last twenty years? Some of us knew what was going on when the engineers told the blokes to remove the bolts that morning. Why didn’t we get the men off the span?
Michelle: For God’s sake Jack, you went on strike over every other bloody thing. Why not that?
Jack: A couple of months before another bridge had come down somewhere in Wales. It was built by the same company and was the same type of construction. We’d demanded a meeting with the bosses to get assurances that our bridge was safe. They brought in all these engineers with degrees in this and that to tell us that it was. And we believed them. Bloody blindly believed what they told us. We trusted them and thirty-five men died.
[Workers appear and move onto the kitchen area as JACK speaks. The space has momentarily become an area for union meetings. The audience sees the white hat (the boss), convince the workers that the bridge is safe. Workers ask questions and some are not happy but feel they must accept what is being told to them. They go back to work.]
Michelle: Didn’t you ask them to prove what they were saying?
Jack: Of course we asked questions but we were baffled by the answers they gave. We were ordinary working men and they were educated people. We were sure they must know what they were talking about.
Michelle: I can’t believe it. [Pause]
And my Dad?
Jack: There were lots of men working inside the span. He wouldn’t have known anything.
Michelle: That’s not true is it? Some of the people lived who were in the span. I read it. He might have been hurt and lying in the mud. It shouldn’t have been allowed to fall down. He might have died down in the mud.
Jack: This is not a pretty story. It’s a hard story. It’s a real story. But people die at work every day. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual. When they are setting up big projects companies’ budget for a number of deaths and injuries.
Michelle: [Pause] I typed a report at work that proves the chemical we’re using for colouring things red can – in some cases – give people cancer.
Jack: And you typed it? We’ll you’ve got to do something about that!
Michelle: It’s confidential. They trust me. My boss gave me a start when I couldn’t get a job anywhere else. They trained me.
Jack: Yeah and there were a lot of nice engineers working on the bridge. Some of them died when it collapsed.
Michelle: This is not a bridge it’s some papers. It’s a report.
Jack: Its evidence the place is not safe to work at. I know the organiser of that picket. I’ll invite him next Saturday and you can pass on a copy of the report.
Michelle: Slow down. They’ll know where he got it from and I’ll lose my job. I’m the only one working in this house.
Jack: He won’t say it came from you. Just give it to him. That’s all you need to do.
Michelle: No. I’ve got to think about us, Mum and me. I need that job.
Jack: If you want to know about your dad that’s what he would do.
Michelle: I can’t lose my job.
Jack: And he would laugh while he was doing it.
Michelle: I’m not like him then.
[As the lights come up we see the family waiting for the guests to arrive for the BBQ. Industrial sounds are heard once more. The BBQ is symbolic rather than actual. The workers greet the family and each other. It is twenty years since the disaster. Some workers are joking and laughing and drinking. Some stand in groups remembering the collapse. Some younger workers are having it explained to them how the bridge collapsed. There is music.]
[MICHELLE leaves the BBQ and enters the kitchen. She sits at the table with a manila folder. Pat enters. Michelle makes a decision. Watched by Pat she takes the folder and leaves the kitchen. Moving across the stage to become the focus, she hands the report to a worker. The worker looks at the report and acknowledges Michelle. He thanks her and puts it under his arm. The BBQ concludes. The workers exit. IRENE, DANNY and JACK say their farewells and also exit.]
[PAT and MICHELLE move towards the kitchen space. PAT moves to centre stage. MICHELLE watches from the kitchen. PAT takes a moment then speaks directly to the audience.]
Pat: Some Sundays he’d put me and Michelle in the car. All of us together off to see the bridge. Isn’t it beautiful, he’d say. Nothing like it has ever been built before. Michelle and I, we didn’t care about his beautiful bridge.
We were just happy to be with him. A family together on a day out.
It took me a long time to get the courage up to drive over the bridge.
I was shaking as I got in the car.
And as I drove I knew that I had more
right than anybody to drive across it. I saw the toll booth in the distance.
I felt the anger rising inside me, tears streamed down my face.
I thought of the senseless waste of all those lives.
As I got closer to it I knew I wasn’t going to pay.
I’d already paid. We’ve all paid.
I looked across at the other drivers and
wondered if they remembered, if they even knew.
And I thought about those Sundays when we were all together.
So long ago.
[Lights up. MICHELLE is standing on the centre rostra. PAT stands on the floor next to the rostra. MICHELLE does a roll call of all the workers that were killed. As each name is read an actor puts down a pair of boots on a line which is lit at the front of the stage.]
[When all the boots have been placed the actors stand in a line upstage and look very simply at the boots.]
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