IT was Friday the thirteenth, earlier this month, and the function room at McDonald Jones stadium was full of older people - obviously friends - who were seated at round tables and talking their heads off.
It was the annual Australian Workers Union retired members' reunion, and two of the tables were full of men who had worked at the BHP. More former steelworks employees sat with mates from other industries. Among the small number of women was Elaine Campbell, a shift-worker in the wire rope works from 1967 to 1996, as well as a union delegate and a long-time member of a BHP-wide board of trustees for the company's superannuation funds.
Adam Lepidis, 79, a beltman in the sinter plant, arrived in Australia from Greece in 1966 and began at BHP in 1975. His friend, Paul Barboutas, 76, worked in the sinter plant from 1968 until big walk out the gate in 1999.
At a table sat Ernie Kembrey, well-known around the plant as a union delegate and a member of the Transition Steering Team that helped make the best of the company's decision to shut the plant. Nearby was another transition team member, Des Clerke, 74, who started at BHP in 1971 and worked at the OneSteel mills until retiring in 2008.
Like virtually everyone I've spoken to who's had an association with the plant, they had only good things to say about life at the steelworks.
There's sometimes a distinction made between the works and the company, in the same way that opponents of a war will differentiate between the soldiers and the politicians sending them into battle. The full-time work, the relatively good money and the camaraderie that develops in close company usually trumps the heat and the grime and the feeling - during the closure and earlier crises - that they were expendable pawns on a very big chessboard.
As Kembrey described places such as the open hearth, where he worked, as "a death-trap, hell on earth".
"It was hard, hot work and the blokes I worked with were magnificent, when it was on you worked as a team, there was no shirking," Kembrey said.
Unions were a big part of life at the steelworks. It was an industrial milieu that would be unrecognisable today, even in the coalmines.
In Tailing Out, a compilation of memories produced for the 1999 closure, two employees of the rail traffic division, which ran the locomotives moving materials and steel around the plant, are interviewed by the book's editor, playright PP Cranney.
"How were the industrial relations?" asks Cranney.
"Terrific. We had two strikes a fortnight," says Eric Williams.
His mate Bill Tearle says: "They used to call us the dry cleaners. 'Back in a day'."
But as Eric pointed out, it wasn't all one-way traffic.
"The company wanted to do this job . . . but they had to stop everything and it was going to take three or four days," Eric said.
He had a mate at ReadyMix Concrete who told him Readymix was primed to start the job with just a few hours' notice.
"So they [BHP] sacked someone. They sacked this bloke for being pissed. We all went out on strike, we were out for three or four days, they poured the concrete, the job was completed. They [BHP] went to [the industrial relations] court and said, 'Oh well, we'll take him back'. "
The strike saved BHP "a lot of money" in wages.
In those days, BHP's main opponent in the industrial arena was the Federated Ironworkers Association. Driven by the Hawke government's push to create fewer but bigger unions, the FIA joined with three smaller unions over 1991-2 to become the Federation of Industrial, Manufacturing and Engineering Employees.
In 1993, FIMEE merged with another historic union, the AWU, to become the FIMEE-AWU Amalgamated Union. In 1995, this unwieldy handle was shortened, creating the modern-day AWU.
At the recent reunion, AWU national secretary Dan Walton, paid tribute to those in front of him, saying: "The reason I think its important is that after all that you went through, 20 years on you are all here as mates, sitting side by side. For me that's the message of what being a union member is. Standing with your mate and supporting each other through thick and thin."
The FIA was not the only union at the Newcastle works, but it represented the bulk of the workforce at a time when the "closed shop" of "no ticket, no start" compulsory unionism held sway.
Very different to today. Walton says the decline in union membership has had a direct impact.
"People in this country are becoming scared to say they stand alongside working people and blue collar workers," Walton said.
Elaine Campbell is also disappointed at the way the country has gone politically, saying people seem to have forgotten that "conditions like sick pay, holiday pay, long service leave and super are all from the unions".
Starting work at 18 in 1967, Campbell says there were two wire rope mills. A fine gauge mill worked almost entirely by "hundreds" of women, made brake cables and clothes lines and steel ropes for tyres. The heavier grade mill had fewer women, and was still open today making ropes for the mining industry.
She said BHP was an early mover when it came to super. Blue collar workers were allowed to join once they reached 21. She began then, "even though it was only 45 or 50 cents a week" at the start. She was on shift work the entire time, in a job that was still demanding, although without the heat of the main works, because the ropes were braided from cold steel.
Not everyone at BHP, of course, voted Labor, and not all were blue-collar workers.
For those who were relatively young in 1999, the Pathways Program, with its generous redundancy payments and retraining and education options, gave them a chance at a new start, which many were only too happy to take on.
At the 10th closure anniversary in 2009, the Newcastle Herald spoke with a pair of tradesmen - Michael Jonita and Ken Jordan - whose lives had been transformed by a move that was forced upon them.
Jonita began in 1972 as an apprentice electrical fitter and gained a second trade later that decade as an instrument fitter, staying until he walked out that final day. Pathways paid for him to retrain as a school teacher but when he could not obtain any full time work he returned to university to add a PhD to his DipEd. Along the way, he volunteered at the Hunter Valley Research Foundation, and was four years into a part-time job when he spoke with the Herald 10 years ago.
"It's worked out just wonderfully for me, I've got no complaints," he said in 2009.
Since then, he's been caught in another round of redundancies, but was one of the lucky handful retained when the foundation was absorbed into the University of Newcastle in 2016 as the Hunter Research Foundation Centre.
Now, he works two days a week as a researcher on the eighth floor of the university's NewSpace building - a long way, metaphorically at least, from the steelworks. He still has no complaints and says research helps keep him in touch with the pulse of the region.
"BHP no longer dominates conversation like it used to," Jonita says. "Now, with the people I talk to, it's all about what's going to happen with the coal industry in the Upper Hunter."
If the name Ken Jordan is familiar, it's because he's a Port Stephens councillor who stood as a Liberal candidate for the state seat of the same name in 2015.
Jordan also retrained as a teacher, and is a head teacher in technology and applied science at the Maitland Catholic high school, St Peter's.
In 2009, he said his 13 years at BHP had given him the grounding he needed for teaching "the modern version of industrial arts".
Back then, he said he would never have left the steelworks had the closure not forced changed on everyone. Today, aged 49 and after 14 years as a teacher says he intends to stay at St Peters.
His work promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects means he regularly runs into ex-BHP people.
"You find them everywhere," Jordan said.
Twenty years after the closure, Jordan is adamant the closure was "a blessing" for the region, but he is determined to "never say a bad word about BHP".
Aubrey Brooks, lauded as "the keeper of the flame" for his work in keeping the memories of the steelworks alive, is another who acknowledges the region's gains while lamenting the loss of the works.
"Next Saturday might just about be the last reunion for me," Brooks says about the effort of organising them.
Brooks, a third-generation BHP employee with an extraordinary repertoire of BHP anecdotes that capture the essence of life on the plant, says the loss of friendship is the worst thing about not working there any more.
"I know we've moved on and aren't going back, but climate change or not we're still going to need heavy industry."
READ MORE about this year's 20th anniversary
- Steel Life, exhibition of steelworks demolition photographs by BHP photographer Murray McKean. University of Newcastle Art Gallery, Callaghan campus, Launch on Tuesday, September 24, 6.30pm. Exhibiton open until October 19
- BHP Reunion, Carrington Bowling Club, Saturday, September 28.
- Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association Tours of Delprat's Cottage and the Muster Point, Sunday, September 29 & Monday, September 30, 10am to 3pm both days.