SBS Greek

The migrants' stories behind Australia’s worst industrial accident

SBS Greek

West Gate Bridge Collapse

View of the collapsed span of the West Gate Bridge during construction of the cable-stayed bridge over the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia in October 1970. Source: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Published 7 August 2018 at 5:56pm
By Panos Apostolou
Source: SBS

It a story that begins with the collapse of the West Gate Bridge in 1970 and the deaths of 35 workers in Australia’s worst industrial accident. Among the dead workers, there was a Greek migrant, 32-year-old George Tsihilidis. 'The Bridge' author Enza Gandolfo talked to SBS Greek.

Published 7 August 2018 at 5:56pm
By Panos Apostolou
Source: SBS

Drawing on true events of Australia’s worst industrial accident, a tragedy that still scars the city, 'The Bridge' is a profoundly moving novel that examines class, guilt, and moral culpability. Ultimately, it is a testament to survival and the resilience of the human spirit. 'The Bridge' author Enza Gandolfo talked to SBS Greek. 

Your new book “The Bridge” is based on some actual events that took place in Melbourne 48 years ago. Could you please tell us about the tragic events of 1970?

They were building the Westgate Bridge for a number of years. It was by that stage getting close to completion but way behind schedule.

In October 1970 they were putting up one of the last spans on the bridge. When they put the spans up, the spans came in two halves and they didn't meet; one was a bit higher than the other. They put huge concrete blocks on it to try and get it to push down so they were even but that cause buckles. 

A crowd attends the memorial for the 37th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge disaster in Melbourne (Oct. 15, 2007).
A crowd attends the memorial for the 37th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge disaster in Melbourne (Oct. 15, 2007). Source: AAP

So, on October 15th and just before lunchtime, they decided that the only way to get rid of the buckles was to take out some of the bolts. There was a huge span up in mid-air and tons and tons of concrete and steel. When they took out the bolts and took out these bolts to try and level it, that caused more buckles, the span became unstable and it collapsed.

There were about 60 men on the site, they were men of the top and underneath the span are inside the cavity of the bridge as well. 35 of the men died.

Thirty-five people died following the West Gate bridge collapse. Among the dead workers, there was a Greek migrant. What do we know about him?

32-year-old George Tsihilidis came to Australia with his family. He was a blacksmith in Greece and he had a blacksmith's shop there. He migrated to Australia and been working as a boilermaker for about 8 years. He was saving to buy a home in Altona where wanted to live with his wife and their two sons.

I am sure there are several heartbreaking stories. Could you possibly tell us about some of the men’s backgrounds?

The 35 man were ranging in ages from about the early 20s. One of the youngest men was 22 y.o. and then right up to 66 y.o. There were a number of men who were married with young children and some of them had three or four children.

There's a couple of men who were in their 60s. One man had retired or been forced to retire from the Department of Supply and then it got a job on the bridge and was working there with his best friend and both men died. A lot of them were migrants coming from Greece, Malta, Italy, and Spain and a lot of English and Irish migrants as well.

Why did you write 'The Bridge'?

I was my first year of high school when the bridge collapsed. My father was a boilermaker, he wasn’t working on the bridge, but it had a couple of the accidents and he nearly broke his back in one accident and lost half a finger in another accident.

When the bridge collapsed, it had a huge impact on me and on my community. I lived less than ten minutes away from the bridge. Everyone I knew was working class, everyone I knew they knew someone who knew someone who worked on the bridge even if they didn't have direct contact. A lot of Melburnians who were around at that time remember that tragedy.

I was just starting to think about issues of justice and I felt a really strong sense of Injustice The Royal Commission report just said that the tragedy was inevitable because they've been so many problems with the design in the construction and so much negligence on the part of the different companies. 

Melbourne's West Gate Bridge.
Melbourne's West Gate Bridge. Source: Wikimedia//

I really felt that it was a story that needed to be told, one of Australia's worst industrial accidents and I think they're a lot of lessons to be learned from it.

What I wanted to do in this novel is to tell the story of an individual person who survived but also lost two of his closest friends. And also to point out the cost of progress, the cost of negligence on the behalf of those companies and I guess to really celebrate the contribution made by working-class people to a city like Melbourne. 

The storyline of 'The Bridge'

In 1970s Melbourne, 22-year-old Italian migrant Antonello is newly married and working as a rigger on the West Gate Bridge, a gleaming monument to a modern city. When the bridge collapses one October morning, killing 35 of his workmates, his world crashes down on him.

In 2009, Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, are on the verge of finishing high school and flush with the possibilities for their future. But one terrible mistake sets Jo’s life on a radically different course. A testament to survival and the resilience of the human spirit. 

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