The bridge and the fire

I want to begin by acknowledging the enduring loss experienced by those whose family members, loved ones and workmates died in Australia’s worst industrial accident. I started on the West Gate Bridge well after the collapse, and I often wondered if only those there on the day could fully comprehend the human dimensions of its tragedy.

Decades later, my question was answered when I saw it through the prism of my experience of another catastrophe.
On 15 October 1970, when some bolts were removed to ‘smooth a buckle’, the Bridge groaned and steel turned blue hot. Two thousand tonnes of steel smashed into the tidal mudflats below. A survivor, Dave Robson, said, ‘When it collapsed, there was a great clap like thunder and a mushroom cloud like the atom bomb‘. The death tally from that day climbed to 35 workers. The collapse left 28 women widowed, and 88 children without fathers. A few days after pulling the bodies of their mates from the mud and debris, the surviving workers were given a week’s wages and sacked. The community response to the disaster was immediate. Local people knocked on doors and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Union members and many others around Australia donated hard-earned money. Politicians demanded answers. They say everyone remembers what they were doing on that fateful day. I was driving from one Melbourne building site to another in a battered old FJ Holden work van, collecting concrete samples.

Eight years later, I was working on the Bridge when it was finally put together. There were daily reminders of the collapse. Many survivors had returned to work to finish the job they started. Stories were regularly shared in the smoko sheds. Every rumble and shudder caused alarm. All those years later, chunks of metal still poked up out of the mud. It was clear that the workers on the Bridge felt an on-going sense of responsibility to the memory of their fallen comrades, a responsibility which still continues 50 years after the collapse. I have two claims to fame from my time on the Bridge. One is a source of pride; the other a source of embarrassment.

On my second day, a massive box girder was about to be lifted off a Pelican barge that had been floated to the middle of the Yarra. The lift didn’t take place though, because head rigger Paddy Hanaphy noticed that the box had been slung the wrong way. The crane driver, Pat Preston, brought the hook back up onto the deck of the Bridge while the box was re-slung below. For no particular reason, I wandered over and noticed a hairline crack in one of the three sheaves in the hook block. I casually turned and told a nearby leading hand boilermaker. Work on the west side stopped for six weeks, at considerable expense. The crane was pulled apart to visually inspect every sheave, and eight of them were replaced. A Westgate Bridge Authority inspector told me that ‘all havoc‘ could have broken loose if that lift had been attempted. I may well have accidentally helped avert a second disaster. However, the only credit I can take is that I understood how dangerous that fracture was, and told someone. My other claim to fame is that I came within a split second of becoming the 37th worker to die on the job. It happened in November 1978 on the auspicious day when the two opposite sections of the Bridge were to be finally joined. The abyss in the middle had shrunk enough by now for the Builders’ Labourers on the West and the Ironworkers on the East to taunt each other – in a more or less good-natured kind of way.

While Paddy Hanaphy was waiting in the belly of the existing structure to race through the risen box and become the first man across the Bridge, I saw some fellow riggers disappearing over the edge on the north side. I hurried after them, scrambling down a ladder and scurrying along an underslung gantry that had been readied to bolt everything together. I watched each man ahead of me jump one after another from the gantry onto the deck of the ascending box. By the time it was my turn, I had no idea if I would fit through the dangerously narrowing gap, or be crushed in the attempt. I made a leap of faith, and was surprised to land unceremoniously, but unscathed on the box. I picked myself up and began pulling on a rope. Outwardly, I put on a brave face; Inwardly, I shrank in embarrassment, having so nearly ruined the occasion for everyone concerned. After about nine months on the job, I moved from the leafy suburb of Eltham to twenty acres of bush up in St Andrews. Every workday my trip to Spotswood began like a rally drive, bumping down a dirt pot-holed road in my mud-splattered Volkswagen Beetle, and swerving to miss kangaroos. I rarely clocked in by 7.10, but no-one seemed to care. There were three of us in my crew: our intrepid leading hand Martin, Laurie the Welshman, and me. Martin later became an elected BLF organiser, before falling out with Norm Gallagher over a matter of principle.

One of my more indelible experiences occurred when my three-man crew joined another crew, waiting in turn to ride a dog box up to the top of the western tower. In a cramped enclosed space, which I am told is called the ‘apex shave housing’, we clamped giant cables to the saddles on which they were seated. These are the cables that motorists see when they drive over the Bridge. It was dirty, complicated work. Now and then, I caught glimpses of the unfolding vista of Port Phillip Bay. Once when I poked my head out I saw a peregrine falcon hovering in front of me, only a metre or two away.

That day, Paddy Hanaphy was calling the shots. The rest of us readily did what he said because we respected and trusted him. Paddy speaks a strange language called Brogue (which is where they drop the ‘H’ in words like third). I was the third man in my crew, so Paddy would say, ‘Matten, you pull on dat chain. Laurie give him a hand. De turd man, you grab dat big hammer.’ I only discovered recently that Paddy had cradled the sagging head of a workmate on the day of the collapse while they waited for the ambos to arrive.

I found rigging inherently interesting. It was 90 per cent problem solving and 10 per cent persuasion. As one of the youngest men on Australia’s most famous construction site, my time there was like a rite of passage. Just wearing the felt bluey issued to me on the day I started was a source of pride. As the job wound down, I was surprised when I wasn’t in the early rounds of sackings. But my luck didn’t last long. The gear box in my VW seized up on the way home one day. I had to drive the rest of way in second gear, crawling up to or speeding towards every traffic light so I wouldn’t stall. Even though I was mechanically challenged, I decided to replace the gearbox myself. It would only take me an hour or two to drop out the old gearbox and bang in a new one. Cummo, a mate from the Bridge generously offered to organise a doctor’s certificate for a week. As things turned out, it did take me a few days to replace the old gearbox. Just after I finally got the jalopy back on the road, I got a call and was told I was being let go for ‘being absent without cause’. The doctor’s certificate must have slipped Cummo’s mind. A couple of months later, I received an official invitation to the Opening. I didn’t go.

Four decades on, in the afternoon of Saturday 7 February 2009, the whole state was on alert. I was at home, sitting on top of a header tank on a tank stand made from scaffold tubing that came from the Bridge. It was a day out of Hell. The temperature in the shade reached 50° and the wind was gusting at 100kph. Just before midday, an electrical fault in a powerline sparked a grassfire, which accelerated as it went. Before long it was generating fireballs, and flames reaching up to 100 metres high, and spotting as far as 50 kilometres ahead. By mid-afternoon, the main firefront was near the outskirts of St Andrews. It was just one of a series of deadly wildfires on that day. There were six of us at home, including both our adult daughters and their partners. I believed the old mantra that houses save people, and people save houses. So my plan was always to stay. But this was a different kind of fire.

I was tuned into to our local emergency radio, straining to hear it over thunderous explosions. Smoke resembling cumulus clouds billowed above the hill to our north. Aerial cranes and a police chopper flew overhead. Dead embers fell out of the sky. Yet strangely, the air directly around us was clear. Kevin Tolhurst, who would later give evidence at the Black Saturday Royal Commission, produced a computer model that predicted the course of the fire. The fire, he said, contained the same energy as 1500 atom bombs. The top of the header tank was the only place where I could see outside the property. I watched our neighbours on the hill opposite drive off. Our bushfire phone tree had failed, and I didn’t know exactly where the front was, but it sounded close. In any case, I wasn’t prepared to leave the house. If flames suddenly came at us through the bush, we would only have seconds to retreat inside, and radiant heat would be the main danger. At about 5.00pm, I felt a southerly gust of wind on the back of my neck. My whole body heaved with relief; I knew then that we were safe. The wind change that saved us, however, incinerated everything north of us, just as Kevin Tolhurst’s model predicted. By nightfall, the wind dropped and an eerie calm descended on our neighbourhood. My partner and I drove up to a friends’ property in Panton Hill with a view to the north. This property was previously owned by Bert Williams, the personnel officer who gave me my start on the Bridge. In the dark, a ruby red glow ringed the Kinglake Ranges. We didn’t know at that point that anyone had died.

The next day we drove to the far end of our road where over twenty houses had been reduced to piles of twisted wreckage. We drove down to our local CFA and general store. We spoke to survivors, whose stories beggared belief. That was when we were told about friends and acquaintances who had died. One of the sadder cases, for us, was a family of four in Kinglake. My partner taught their two sweet primary-aged children. The death tally in our local community on Black Saturday was in the same order as the death tally on the Bridge. My neighbour across the road got no sleep for 36 hours. He told me that his fire crew didn’t even pull out their hoses; they spent all of their time pulling people out of stalled cars, and warning those in their homes that the fire was only minutes away.

My friend Joe the plasterer was a lovely, gentle man, who had worked on our house. He and his son died on their way to help his brother-in-law, (who survived the fire himself but later committed suicide.) I used to often see Joe on the road as he headed home from work and we would always wave. He had bought a bush block up here because he loved native orchids. I had known Reg Evans for years. Back in the ’70s, he drove around in a little yellow van with ‘Friends of the Earth’ in large print on the side. Reg was an actor, who had worked in Mad Max and Women of the Sun. He specialised in playing weedy characters. We would often talk politics on the steps of the store. Reg was a contrarian and would often say something outrageous and then break into a mischievous grin. He used to ring talkback radio, where he was introduced as ‘Reg from St Andrews’. Eventually the presenter got sick of arguing with him, so Reg was banned. He managed to sneak back on air at least once though, tricking the producer by saying he was ‘Reg from Hurstbridge’. We had our last conversation at the store on the Monday before Black Saturday. He had his carpenter’s tools out to replace the wooden balustrading on the steps. He and his partner Angela died in the fire.

In 2009, I was employed as a teacher running residential surf camps in Torquay for an inner city girls’ school. We used to drive there over the Westgate Bridge. I would say to whoever happened to be sitting next to me in the bus, ‘See those cables? I put them there!’ In the week following Black Saturday, not knowing what else to do, I went on camp – just as if nothing had happened. At breakfast on the second day, I was staring at photographs of the victims of the fires in an open newspaper. Nineteen of those pictured were friends or old acquaintances. Tears rolled down my cheeks. The girls must have noticed, but our eyes never met. A colleague, Sonya, said nothing; she simply put her hand on my shoulder. I don’t know if she ever realised how much that simple gesture meant to me. I took the following week off to help a mate drag away the twisted piles of corrugated iron that remained of his house. He wanted to comb through the ashes for anything of value before Grollo bulldozed the site. In the event, he found little more than a melted fire pump and chainsaw.

The following Saturday, my partner and I drove through Strathewan to check on friends. We were stunned to see pink naked ladies rising from the ashes, already in flower. We looked back towards our house and could see impact of the primary firefront like a blackened spear pointing directly towards it. The fire changed direction with the wind when it was just two kilometres from us, a few minutes away. That night, St Andrews Hotel was packed with members of the local community who came to be together. Friends of ours were buoyant because they had saved the plans of their dream house which had taken decades to build, but only minutes to burn down. The sheer fatigue they felt eventually overwhelmed them. They had to deal with the loss of a friend who had been sheltering with them in their pantry; and with everything else in the unbearable aftermath of the disaster. So ultimately, they decided to sell. The next day, my partner and I went to help other friends salvage what they could before Grollo arrived. Their mudbrick cottage had burnt down despite the sprinklers on the roof. Glass in a window had melted and flowed onto a sheet of iron, setting hard, perfectly corrugated. Their studio still stood.

Joe was in a coma for two weeks before he died. I drove up from Torquay to attend his funeral. I teared up again when Frank, a local chippie, spoke so movingly about Joe on behalf of all the tradies and owner-builders in the area. Frank later organised a series of working bees to help Joe’s widow. I felt very angry for a long time about the failure of political leadership on Black Saturday. I didn’t know that I needed counselling. The school I worked at had a full-time counsellor, but I cannot remember them ever being in the same room as me. They must have thought I was invincible. Eighteen months after the fire I had another teaching gig up in Ramingining. There, I met two Indigenous assistant teachers, Ron and Albert, both respected elders and beautiful men. They told me that the hat had been passed around this remote community to raise money for the bushfire victims. Hearing that touched me deeply. That’s real solidarity.

These two disasters, four decades apart, show what happens when we underestimate the forces of nature. Both disasters were avoidable. Both royal commissions found fault with decisions made by the men who held the purse strings. Yet those who worked with their hands – bridge builders and owner-builders – paid the heaviest price. Whether it’s earthquakes in Turkey or Christchurch, or floods in Pakistan or Traralgon, helping others in trouble, others who may well be total strangers, is a natural human response. That initial help lifts up affected communities and gives them a chance to gather themselves. After both the Westgate Bridge collapse and Black Saturday, both communities found ways to come together and heal. To mourn, and to celebrate what they were proud of. Having experienced Black Saturday, I think I was able to empathize more viscerally with those who lost loved ones when the Bridge collapsed. I also better understood the value of community and of being a good citizen. Beneath the Bridge, there is a small bush reserve that has been regenerated by a friends’ group. Among the Indigenous plants they have planted are native orchids. Joe would have liked that.



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Robbo Bennetts

Robbo Bennetts majored in manning barricades at university in 1969 and 1970 before dropping out to work on building sites and in factories for 12 years. During that time he worked on the Westgate Bridge as a rigger. He has been published in various places over the years.

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