On the morning of 15 October, Ian Miller walked on to the span he and the men had just recently put in place on top of the huge 155ft concrete piers on the west side of the River Yarra. His colleague Jack Hindshaw was there. They waved a greeting to each other.
Jack, 42, the resident engineer for the bridge designers, Freeman Fox and Partners, had been sent out from London. Only a few weeks before, Ian and Jack had assured the men the bridge was safe after a similar bridge at Milford Haven, Wales, had collapsed and killed four men. Now this span was giving trouble.
Ian and Jack walked a few steps towards each other when suddenly the bridge groaned. An eerie pinging noise filled the air. Jack and Ian looked down and saw flakes of rust peeling off the steel. The bolts were turning blue. The bridge fell away beneath their feet.
Bob West’s mates often ribbed him about the early start he was making towards a big family. Only 24, and he already had three kids with one on the way. Perhaps soon, when he got his tax rebate cheque, the Housing Commission would let him have a house instead of the Collingwood flat he and his pretty wife, Pat, and the kids had to live in.
Bob liked his mates. Only yesterday they’d all laughed when they felt the span move. ‘She must be having growing pains’ someone said. Pat and the kids were in bed when Bob left for work. He was dead less than five hours later.
It was still dark when Bill Harburn slipped out of bed from beside his wife, Mavis, and started to get ready for work. He didn’t want to disturb the house. The children - Alan, Philip, Steven and little Vicki - would get up soon for work or for school. He’d see them when he got home from the bridge later, probably kick a football with the boys around the backyard of their home in Hayes St., Highett.
Bill, 47, was a proud man. A keen sportsman, he’d captained the Australian Soccer team once since he migrated from England in 1954, and he was still considered a handy player with his home side, Sandringham. Two of the boys played with him in the team. Maybe they too would represent Australia. But right now he had to get to his other pride and joy, the bridge. It would be a fine, cool day so they should be able to get a lot done.
It wasn’t until two days later that they were able to identify Bill Harburn’s body. ‘He loved that damned bridge’, Mavis said later.
Jack Grist and Fred Upsdell had been mates since they met in Middlesex, England, more than 20 years ago. On migrating they had become neighbours at Altona, not far from the West Gate Bridge. They became even closer when Jack’s daughter, Yvonne, married Fred’s son, Gerald.Jack, 54, went on to become a foreman on the bridge and Fred, 66, took a job as storeman because he couldn’t stand the thought of retiring. But it wouldn’t be long before the bridge was finished and they could both get on with a spot of fishing. Meanwhile, they way they went on about ‘their bridge’ to their wives and friends you’d swear they were the only two building it.
Jack called for Fred on the morning of 15 October 1970. They were on the job early, so they took an early lunch in one of the huts below the span. Rescuers later found their bodies only inches apart. Jack Grist and Fred Upsdell were buried alongside each other.
Victor Gerada had to wake his wife before he went to work. He had to reassure her ‘Don’t worry, love,’ he said, ‘It must have been the wind that caused it to shake yesterday.’ Victor, a Maltese steel rigger, had worried all evening about the shudder he felt run through the bridge that day. He’d tried to speak to his mates about it, but he’d been afraid they’d call him a coward. So, he told Doris. Now, as he was leaving for work, he knew he must have imagined it and he didn’t want Doris to worry.
Just before 11 o’clock Doris heard the sirens. She started running. The bridge loomed up in front of her She could see it was broken.
The police already had barricades up but she didn’t notice them. She ducked under a policeman’s outstretched arm and ran blindly towards the ambulances into which they were loading the dead and injured.
Suddenly she saw Victor’s shirt and arm jutting out from under a blanket.
The blanket covered his head.
Extract from ‘West Gate’ by Bill Hitchings