Monday, 15 October 2007

Message of love for West Gate victims

I was touched by this story. I was too young to remember the actual event when it happened, but I'm aware of how long-term effects of these things linger for a lifetime.

When Ray Lindholm addresses a memorial service for the 37th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse on Monday, he will have a simple message of love for the mates that remain, the ones that never made it home and the families they left behind.

"I'll say this to the people down there (at the memorial): your men were my friends, and I want you to know now, you people, that you are my friends," Mr Lindholm, 74, told AAP.

"I get down there each year and I've been down with my wife, my kids, my brothers and my grandkids and great-grandkids.

"Those blokes that died on the West Gate would be doing similar if they were alive.

"The youngest guy that was killed down there was 19 at the time. He'd be 56 on Monday.

"I think about that, and I want those people to know that we come down here to feel good knowing that we remember your men.

"I knew every man that was killed on West Gate personally."

Then a 38-year-old father of four, Ray Lindholm was a leading hand boilermaker working on the other side of the bridge when span 10-11 broke loose in a din of shearing metal and shattering concrete shortly before noon (AEST) on October 15, 1970.

The collapse sent 2000 tonnes of concrete and steel - and dozens of workers - plunging to the mud flats by the Yarra River below.

Thirty-five men died and 17 were injured among the twisted steel and wreckage of Australia's worst industrial disaster.

Others, like Ray Lindholm, were physically untouched - but suffered greatly.

He was to have transferred to the collapsed span six days later. The man he was replacing was killed.

A week before, as the span began to buckle during construction, Mr Lindholm told his wife Dorothy he thought the bridge would fall, despite assurances from the English bridge designers.

"I turned my back for five seconds and my mate said, `The west side's gone'. I turned back and saw the secondary hit, dust coming up, diesel tanks exploding, flames going everywhere.

"We raced down the lift, across the river in a boat, and 20 minutes later we were pulling mates out of the mud and there I stayed until 12.30 in the morning."

At 10pm, after hours aiding the rescue effort, a rescue crew asked him to cut out a large steel panel from part of the span with an oxy torch, hoping to find survivors inside.

"I said to them, `I'm starting to crack up. I can't stand burning flesh'," he said.

"I cut out this huge panel. They brought in a crane and lifted it up, and then someone bumped me walking past with a stretcher.

"It was my mate the first aid man, and he was crushed in a shed underneath the bridge, and then I cracked up."

With the help of Red Cross volunteers and a hot cuppa, he returned to the scene.

Mr Lindholm was one of a crew that bravely returned to the bridge soon after the disaster to ensure the site was safe.

Following a Royal Commission in 1971 into the cause of the disaster, work resumed in May 1972.

Mr Lindholm stayed with the troubled project, finishing as a top foreman, when it was completed in 1978. But with no counselling after the collapse, the burden took its toll.

"For five years after West Gate went down, I worked there but I drank and I drank with these mates of mine, We all did the same thing.

"We wandered around knocking out heads on bar room walls and drinking grog, and nearly went around the twist. Without counselling, we were hiding behind glasses of beer.

"But the women stepped in and said, `You didn't die on the West Gate, you're not going to leave me now."

"My wife straightened me up and made me realise I was going in the wrong direction. And then in 1972 we had a beautiful daughter and she is still my backbone."

Almost four decades on, Mr Lindholm said thoughts of the disaster have intensified since he retired last year.

"I've dreamt about West Gate for 37 years and I have had a pretty torrid time," Mr Lindholm said.

"At work I talked to other people and mixed with other people, moved along with life, but as I've retired I have realised that a lot of my mates didn't retire."

Only a handful of survivors are still alive, Mr Lindholm said.

"The word that I use most about the West Gate is camaraderie. It's so big down there. You see construction workers hugging one another like sheilas do," he said.

"Whenever one of us dies and there is a funeral, we get in touch with each other and we front.

"None of us like funerals - we hate funerals - but we front because we want their families to know that we loved them and they were important people."

Peas be with ewe

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