West Gate Bridge – 43 years on
October 15, 2013
Just before lunch on 15 October 1970, the West Gate Bridge suddenly groaned. An eerie pinging noise filled the air. A storm of rust flakes peeled off weathered steel. The girders started to turn blue. The bridge fell away beneath the feet of those working there. 35 workers were killed that day, many more seriously injured, and countless others and their families were affected forever.
On October 15, 2013 – 43 years later – a crowd gathered, as it does every year, to remember that terrible day. Organised by the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee, the ceremony was sad and touching. Recalling the mates they lost on the day, the ever-decreasing number of survivors greeted each other and shared memories with those there.
Before the ceremony began, SafetyNet's editor Renata spoke with Chris Zaharakis, her son Steve and Ron McIntosh. Chris's husband Norm (Naoumi) Zaharakis, was a 34 year-old carpenter employed by John Holland, and was working on the bridge that day. Chris, who was 33 years old, spoke very little English, and was at home with two small children at the time, saw the collapse on the TV. Immediately worried for her husband, she called police and hospitals, desperate to know whether he was ok. It was a terrible day: she had to wait all day before she could find out that he had survived uninjured, and had been helping find survivors. Chris said she had cried all day, and suffered a huge shock. Norm suffered a shock too: Chris said he could not eat meat for months afterwards. Steve, who was almost five at the time, said his father helped both him and his brother get jobs with John Holland when they got older - so they followed him into the construction industry. Steve told VicUnions (see link to video, below) that it was people like his father, and those killed that day, who struggled and took strike action to win safer conditions for all workers.
Ron's experience shows how such an event affects not only the workers and their families, but also the wider community. In 1970 Ron, who now works at the Transport Workers Union (TWU), was in Year 9 at St Paul's, Altona. He remembers the week vividly: he attended the funerals of two workers who were killed on the bridge. One was George Prám, the father of a school friend.
|Chris and Steve Zaharakis, looking at some of Ron's photos of the bridge in 1970
|Memorial Committee member Danny Gardiner addresses the crowd
Ray Lindholm, who was a metals shop steward on the job, was there again this year with his wife Dorothy. In 1970 they lived in Reservoir, and as soon as Dorothy heard of the collapse, she drove down to the site to try to find out whether Ray was alive. She didn't expect to be allowed onto the site, but she also didn't expect the response she got from a policeman when she asked about her husband: 'If he's not under the rubble, then he'll be alive.' They come in every year from Hastings, even though Ray, who suffers from asbestosis, is not well.
Danny Gardiner, a member of the Committee, called on everyone to stop for a minute's silence at 11.50, the exact moment the span of the bridge collapsed. On that day he was one of those called in to assist with the rescue. Several of those present put wreaths under the Memorial Plaque. Danny was followed by Pat Preston, also a Committee member, who was working on the bridge that day, and who later became OHS coordinator with the CFMEU. He noted the many faces he recognised from 43 years ago – pointing out Hank Prince – now 98 years old and still coming year after year. But he also noted that many were no longer there among them – replaced by younger workers, sons, daughters and even grandchildren. Pat reminded everyone that it was not unusual for the conditions in those days to be terrible; but these had improved through the struggles and efforts of workers, including those workers who had lost their lives that day.
Ray Lindholm, who spoke next, pointed to the names behind him. 'I have a memorial sheet in my brain – both past and present,' he said. 'Even though it's almost closing time for many of us, the proudest thing for me is to see these young workers here. We might look rugged, and in those days we were pretty rough and rugged, but we've built camaraderie.' He lamented that too many Victorians had forgotten about the tragedy – his wife had contacted the media to remind them the anniversary of the collapse, but no-one seemed interested. 'We're just blue collar workers,' said Ray, 'We're not important.'
|Ron Fyfe, shaking Hank Prince's hand, Pat Preston, between them, and Ray and Dorothy Lindholm.
|Yvette (Eve) Prám laying wreath beneath the Memorial Plaque
Danny closed the formal part of the ceremony, repeating what both Pat and Ray had said: there will come a time when none of the workers who were there that day will be present, but that the crowd had many young people. All said as long as people came and remembered, the ceremony would continue and the workers killed would not be forgotten. 'As long as you will come, we will come,' he said, 'and after us there will be others.' He then invited those present to join the committee at a local watering hole for a drink so people could catch up.
Afterwards, Renata caught up with George Prám's family: Mrs Gisella Prám and her daughters Yvette (Eve) Prám and Giselle (Jess) Botten. Mr Prám was 43 years old when he was killed in the collapse. Mrs Prám was 40 when she lost her husband, Eve was 12, Giselle was 14 and their older brother Tibor was 15. Unfortunately Tibor passed away in March of this year. Mrs Prám spoke of how difficult it had been for the family – and in particular when they celebrated family events such as the children's milestone birthdays, marriages, or the birth of grandchildren. Eve, who became an active union delegate with HACSU (health services), reflected: 'So 2013 is the 43rd year that marks the West Gate Bridge Disaster, the same number of years as my dad's life here in earth...'
|Left to Right:
Dorothy Lindholm; Yvette Prám; Ray Lindholm; Giselle (Jess) Botten; and Mrs Gisella Prám
For much more information, including other stories and the outcome of the Royal Commission, go to the West Gate Bridge Memorial website. Also, on the Google Arts and Culture website, checkout the online exhibition: Disaster at West Gate.