It was in that moment that the West Gate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 men and becoming Australia’s worst industrial accident to date.
Enza Gandolfo was in class at Footscray Girls High School and recalls the day vividly.
“There was an announcement saying that there had been a major accident and calling for anyone who had relatives working on the bridge to come to the office,” the author said.
“You could see it and hear it from all parts of the city.”
Almost five decades later, that tragic moment in Australian history is relived in Enza’s new book, The Bridge.
A poignant novel which examines class, grief, guilt and moral culpability, The Bridge weaves together two vastly different yet interrelated narratives.
The first tells the story of Antonello, a 22-year-old migrant working as a rigger on the West Gate Bridge when it collapses, killing two of his close friends.
The second follows the journey of Jo, a young working class woman who is on the verge of completing high school when she is involved in a car accident which kills her best friend.
Enza explained that this part of the story was inspired by several accidents which occurred when she began writing, in which the drivers survived and their passengers were killed.
These incidents prompted the writer to ask the question: how do you live with being responsible for someone else’s death?
Though the two narratives are set almost 40 years apart, Enza confirmed that Antonello appears in the second part of the story and that there is a connection between the two characters.
“I won’t say anymore or I’ll give it away,” she laughed.
The story of the bridge is something that has affected Enza deeply.
She was raised in Yarraville by Italian parents who migrated from the Sicilian village of Licodia Eubea in the early 1950s.
With a boilermaker father and a mother who worked mainly in textile factories, Enza had a typical upbringing in a working class family from the western suburbs.
“The accident had a profound impact on me,” she said.
“I remember being both very sad but also very angry that it had been allowed to happen and that those men had been killed.”
Having lived in the west for most of her life, Enza catches a glimpse of the West Gate Bridge almost every day.
“I’ve always felt a haunting sensation around the bridge and I always had this idea that I might write about it at some point,” she said.
It wasn’t until she was working on a project on op-shops and got chatting to a volunteer in his 80s who had worked on the bridge, that the story began to come to fruition.
The man had been away when the bridge collapsed, but was one of the workers who went back to complete its construction in the wake of the incident.
“He’d lost many close friends in the tragedy and he felt that it was his responsibility to finish it and make sure it was going to be safe,” Enza said.
Prompted to pen a fiction about this very real tragedy, the author began to research it in more depth.
“Because some of the people involved are still living, I felt a really strong sense of obligation to do solid research,” she explained.
Enza referred to the Royal Commission into the accident, which included interviews with 52 witnesses.
She also drew on newspaper articles featuring survivors and families of those involved and archival material from the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee.
All of this added up to six months of thorough research before Enza picked up a pen, and continual research as the novel came to life.
An Honorary Professor in Creative Writing at Victoria University, Enza wrote the book in her “spare time”, meaning it took around eight years to complete.
It’s safe to say that she was relieved to see the novel finally launched by fellow author Alice Pung on Friday, May 18.
With The Bridge now sitting on bookstore shelves, Enza is preparing to talk about it at the 15th edition of the Williamstown Literary Festival, set to unfold on June 16 and 17.
Speaking with Demet Divaroren, Enza will share her motivations for writing the book and touch on the research, writing and publication processes.
She is also hoping to touch on the novel’s main themes, and her choice of location and demographic.
“I often set my fictional work locally and I like focusing on the working class,” she said.
The novel does not only reflect her upbringing in the west, but also her Italian heritage.
“When I was thinking about who the main character might be I wanted to write about someone who comes from a culture that I understand and that I am embedded in,” she said.
“There aren’t enough Italian migrants in Australian literature given the long history of Italian migrants here and the influence that Italians have had on the community.”
No stranger to the festival, Enza is eager to return with a new work to discuss.
And what better place to celebrate The Bridge than in the area in which the novel is set?!
Enza Gandolfo will speak at the Williamstown Literary Festival on June 16 at 12:00 pm. For more information or tickets visit the festival’s website.