By Rijn Collins
Edited by Elizabeth Flux
His present to me that year was the West Gate Bridge. Just before Christmas on our first date, I’d asked where he lived, expecting one of the inner northern suburbs that usually made up my dating pool. “Sunshine”, was his answer. I must have looked bewildered. ‘Deep west’, was his explanation. When I asked a friend who worked there what it was like, her response was “It’s a bit…stabby.” I was not filled with confidence.
A fellow writer, Chris had a lexicon unlike any I’d heard before, uttered from a beautiful mouth. I was deeply smitten. And so I began regular train trips to this mysterious place, ‘The West’.
Leaving the city we crawled under freeways and alongside rust-flaked silos. The train snaked past dockyards whose shipping containers, emblazoned with ‘Hamburg’ or ‘Shanghai’, were stacked into the sky. The gantries rose up like huge animals looming over the water; at night they took my breath away with their luminescence and grandeur. My affinity with the west came quickly and surprised everyone, after twenty-five years of living in the cherry-tattoo-and-craft-beer enclave of Northcote. But the train journey had become a ritual I learned to cherish, for not only would it bring me to Chris, but also the West Gate Bridge.
Her curving lines and fluttering flags caught the eye just after Footscray station.
As a native Melburnian I’d travelled across her many times, but never before had I realised just how beautiful she was.
On each journey I found myself leaning forward in my train seat, waiting for that first glimpse. My newfound love of the area and the man who’d brought me there melded each time my eyes found her on the skyline, bringing a rush of warmth and familiarity.
It wasn’t always that way, however. Every time we drove across the West Gate Bridge as kids – every single time – my dad would start the story. “It happened in 1970, before you girls were born.” We’d clutch the arm rests, knowing what was coming. “The bridge started to tremble, and then it just came apart in the sky, right where we’re driving now!” An anxious child anyway, my knuckles were white for the entire length of the bridge. I didn’t realise at the time how frightened Dad was of driving across it himself; perhaps he hoped that sharing the fear would dilute it. He still dreads it, which explained his shudder when I told him where Chris and I were moving in together. Our cute little brick house in Spotswood gave a view of the bridge, which, coming from the east, he’d now have to drive over every time he visited his daughter.
Spotswood is dominated by the West Gate Bridge. I can hear the off-ramp trucks from my writing desk, and see the flags on the top from my living room window. There is great comfort in both. The industrial aspect of Spotswood brings all the senses to life; cacophonous smashing from the glassworks factory, motorcycles revving in the workshops, huge petrochemical vats labelled PULP and SPULP, and the stench of the pumping station down by Scienceworks. I walk around and feel utterly at home here among the rust and graffiti, finding new routes, and new memories.
But mostly, I head to the bridge.
Past the huge vacant expanse of the Scienceworks car park and over busy Hyde Street, you can come to a rest just underneath this daunting feat of engineering. You’re on the verge of wetlands with families of swans, and the narrow strip of Stony Creek Park. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll stand with your eyes closed, head back, and listen to the bridge speak. You can hear the clank and clatter of huge trucks overhead. The noise is monstrous, making it impossible not to flinch. But I know that what I’m really flinching at happened before I was born, right on this exact spot.
They knew there was a problem. Still under construction, the western and eastern ends were found to be out of alignment by 114mm. Measures to correct this had caused “obvious overstress”, according to Jack Hindshaw, the engineer flown out from the U.K. to oversee the procedure. Alternatives were suggested but they couldn’t come to a decision. And so the workers kept climbing her frame.
On October 14, 1970, the bridge stirred. Her concrete swayed, briefly but noticeably. The men on top paused. One of them called out “She must be having growing pains!”, and a few laughed. One went home to tell his wife of his misgivings, but all turned up to work the next day.
Late that morning, Jack Hindshaw was on the phone to his boss, declaring his concerns. His last words were “Shall I get the bods off?” Moments later, at 11:50am, the bridge groaned. The tenth section on the western end began to buckle, shaking a shower of rust flakes loose.
Those who survived told of a ghastly pinging sound as metal rained down on the workers’ huts below.
The girders, burdened with a weight they couldn’t hold, began to turn blue from the pressure. And then the bridge gave way beneath their feet.
Over fifty men were on site. Some came down with the bridge, while others ran, quite literally for their lives. Fuel ignited in an explosion that was heard miles away. Houses nearby were covered in flying mud. The storm of dust, fire and mangled metal was catastrophic. A friend of mine was in primary school in nearby Yarraville that day and heard the tremendous noise. Another had been on school camp along the water’s edge, dozens of children watching in horror as bodies and chunks of steel tumbled into the water below.
The West Gate Bridge looms large in Melbourne’s skyline, but her collapse stays embedded in our psyche. It remains Australia’s worst industrial accident to this day, claiming the lives of 35 construction workers. Six mangled fragments of the bridge are in engineering campuses around Melbourne to remind students of the consequences of mistakes. Some survivors actually went back to work, picking up their tools and climbing her frame again. For those like my father who wince each time they drive across her, this last fact is almost unfathomable. Some people ‘touch wood!’ when they drive across her. Others go out of their way to avoid it. Almost everyone knows the story.
This is not the only shadow, however. Darcey Freeman was four years old when her father stopped his car on the West Gate Bridge in 2009, and threw his daughter to her death. If the collapse is one aspect of the bridge that Melburnians will never forget, then Darcey is the other. Barriers have now been installed along the length of the bridge to protect those who travel across, which has also led to a significant reduction in suicide attempts. These elements, deeply tragic though they are, have become part of the bridge’s complex history.
Engineering constructions of such grandeur and mystery can be daunting in their own right, even if you’re unaware of the history. The bridge is beautiful to me, but I do not view her without awe. Standing underneath, amidst the noise and rattle of her metal, the water slapping the bank and the city in the background, is an experience both sobering and exulting all in one.
I moved to Spotswood shortly after the anniversary of the collapse on October 15. Chris and I walked there with his 9-year-old son, wondering if it would be one of those wondrous occasions when we could watch an enormous cargo boat glide under her arches. We found bouquets laid against one of her girders, under the West Gate Memorial plaque engraved with the names of all the victims of the fall. The cards were heartrending; men still missed, still mourned, so many decades later. I placed trumpet lilies from our garden against the bridge, for the men, for Darcey, and for all who had lost their lives on the West Gate. With my head down I stood in silence, my hand on her concrete, steady and solid.
The West Gate is more than a symbol of Melbourne for me. Not only does she join the east and west of my beloved city, she’s also the link between my old and new life. I’ve travelled across her span as a fretful child praying for the beams to hold, in my twenties heading down the coast to a holiday house with friends, and on my way home from my first sold-out literary festival appearance. Cruising down her lanes with the sun on my arms, my man by my side and all of Melbourne spread out below us feels like the most beautiful of blessings.
It feels like flying.
It feels like home.
Hitchings, Bill, ‘West Gate’, Outback Press, 1979