On Sunday 15 October I went to the 47th annual memorial of the West Gate Bridge collapse.
What makes that memorial so moving?
- It was a reunion, though a sombre one, of the extended network of people impacted by that fateful day on 15 October 1970 – survivors, families of the victims, and construction workers who work on projects where risk is present every day. People were so glad to be with each other.
- The place – the memorial is at the very spot where the lunchroom was located when the Bridge began to fall. The sense of the height and weight of all that concrete is oppressive.
- Knowing that workers had raised concerns before the Bridge collapsed.
- The minute’s silence and reflection at 11.50 heightened awareness of the ceaseless noise of traffic on the Bridge above – that vital connection between east and west on which Melbourne critically depends.
- The memorial was funded by the workers themselves – each contributing one day’s pay from a weekly pay packet. The West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee is made up of survivors and people who worked on the Bridge between the collapse in 1970 and the opening in 1978. The survivors grow old, and some have died. John Setka, secretary of the CFMEU has joined the Committee. His father survived the Bridge collapse.
The tragedy led to huge improvements to workplace safety – all hard fought for and won by the union.
Fewer people die in construction across Australia each year now than in that single disaster. Nevertheless, 27 construction workers have died so far this year to 16 October 2017.1 The construction industry is the third largest contributor to all workplace deaths.
The commemoration reminded of some plaques I had seen riding around Port Places.
That’s all. The only beautiful detail recalled – his ‘welcoming nature’. It seems that an engineering scholarship was awarded at RMIT in his name for several years.
And on a planter box in Grant Street near ACCA a plaque in memory of Justin James O’Connor.
“Joc” O’Connor died working on the City Link project in May 1997. He was 28. He drowned in a relatively shallow hole that had not been fenced off. This account of his last minutes is harrowing. His death was avoidable.
O’Connor had apparently raised concerns about safety on site with his mother, but placed confidence in those employing him. Transfield was fined $15,000. O’Connor loved football and played for St Kevins. A Perpetual Cup is played in his memory.
Two months later, his workmate Adam Dougherty, took his own life. He had been one of the first on the scene to assist O’Connor and continued to press concerns about safety after he died.
Ben Davis, Victorian Secretary of the AWU, speaking at the West Gate Memorial, urged the importance of ongoing vigilance on workplace safety with so many infrastructure projects underway. Above all, if workers have safety concerns they should be respected, heard and acted upon.
If you pass by that way, perhaps to see the mangroves at Stony Creek, do take a quiet minute to read each of the names on the Memorial.
I end this piece with this quote on Justin O’Connor’s plaque:
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at their broken places” Ernest Hemingway
The West Gate Bridge Memorial website is an excellent online memorial. It includes photographs showing the Bridge as those two sections of the Bridge were reaching to meet with such fatal consequences.
1Safe Work Australia Fatality Statistics