IN the end, it was a small gathering of just 60 or so who arrived at the Muster Point at Mayfield yesterday to mark the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Newcastle steelworks.
But whatever this small assembly lacked in size, it more than made up for in historical importance.
Not only because the place they had come to remember is now widely acknowledged as a birthplace of Australian industry.
But also because the years are rolling by, and there was a strong feeling that this may be the final time that such a group - with long and deep connections to BHP - would gather like this.
Before Prime Minister Scott Morrison left for his recent trip to the United States, he told the Herald the BHP anniversary was a time to remember and respect the generations of Novocastrians who worked there, while applauding the modern city as "an exemplar of renewal and revitalisation".
"At the time, some people thought the city would suffer the same fate as the steelworks, but Newcastle's spirit and determination to reinvent itself shows how adversity can bring out the best in a community and its leaders," Morrison said.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian was similarly positive, saying Newcastle has "completely transformed" since the fears and uncertainties of the closure.
THE STORY SO FAR
- Murray McKean's demolition photos Steel Life
- The steel industry today
- Men and women of steel
- Reflections on the end of an era
- Timeline and gallery
- Remembering the human toll
- Newcastle since the steelworks shut
- Hard hats and soft lips: love at BHP
- Cheers, tears and fears as era ends
- Steel City memories burning bright at the Muster Point
- The Big reunion 20 years after clock-off
The guests of honour at yesterday's ceremony were John Risby, 94, who was general manager of the Newcastle works from 1980 to early 1986, and Lance Hockridge, who arrived in the top job in October 1997 and steered the plant through to closure.
Earlier, as guests were looking through the Muster Point, the president of the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association, Bob Cook, spoke about the importance of the anniversary.
Cook and steelworks identity Aub Brooks said the Muster Point was a physical reminder of an era that was forever etched in the hearts and minds of those who lived through it.
"This is a point in time worthy of recognition, and we believe it was the right thing to bring people like Lance and Jack back together here today," Cook said.
Hockridge came to the steelworks from BHP's transport division.
His next appointments were running the Port Kembla steelworks and a steel plant in the United States, before leaving BHP to head Queensland Rail (since privatised as freight haulier Aurizon). For him, this week was about "reflection, resilience and renewal".
"Eighty-four years of steelmaking," Hockridge said.
The bricks and mortar are important but the history of this place is all about the men and women who made it what it is, through good times and not so good timesLance Hockridge, final general manager of BHP's Newcastle steelworks
"Eighty-four years when this place was so much the backbone of industrial Australia, both in its own right, and through all of the industries spawned around it in this area.
All of those years, all of that effort, and beyond that, building Australia and making Australia what it is today, and so many of you were part and parcel of that."
Hockridge said that as "outside observer" for the past 20 years it had been "terrific to see that the city has moved on".
Beryl Fenning, whose crane-driver husband Kevin was one of two men burned to death in a tragic furnace blow-back on March 14, 1995, was also welcomed as a special guest.
Kevin Fenning, 55, had a trainee, Peter Naylor, 37, in his overhead crane when the molten iron they were pouring into a steelmaking furnace exploded, shattering their cabin windscreen smothering them in 1500-degree molten iron and carbon monoxide.
A plaque to the men went missing and Mrs Fenning's determination to get it back was part of a chain of events that resulted in a new generation of BHP management handing over a long-rumoured book of steelworks fatalities that their predecessors had seemed unwilling to even acknowledge, let alone make public.
"Kevin was scared to go to work," Mrs Fenning said at the Muster Point.
"There'd been another blow-back before that, and the force of it blew him out of his seat and he had to go to the ambulance station for the burns.
"He said to my mother after that, he said: "One of these days, I won't be coming home from there.
He wanted to get out of that crane, he applied for other jobs on the ground, but they wouldn't move him, he was too good at what he did."
Hockridge referred to such tragedies when he spoke about "resilience".
"Most of all, we reflect on the people who Aub [Brooks] has always called 'the men and women of steel'," Hockridge said.
"The bricks and mortar are important but the history of this place is all about the men and women who made it what it is, through good times and not so good times.
"Let's acknowledge, particularly, from a safety point of view, that this was a dark and dangerous place at times, so it's appropriate we acknowledge that, and as part of this reflection talk about the responsibility of all of us, particularly those of us in leadership positions, to make sure first and foremost, we run safe operations."
Without the steelworks there'd be no Islington, Tighes Hill, Mayfield. All the English firms followed the steelworks. If it had gone to Whyalla they would have gone to AdelaideJohn Risby
Risby - who Aub Brooks loves to describe as "the people's general manager" - joined the works in 1941 as a trainee metallurgist after schooling at Maitland Boys High (as it was before its co-ed days started in 1987).
Talking about the Herald's coverage of the BHP closure anniversary, Risby did not dispute the pollution, but said the steelworks was not the sole contributor.
"The dirty washing on the line, all that happened, but for most of the steelworks life there was [the coal-fired] Zaara Street power station, and steam locomotives," Risby said.
"Everyone had an incinerator in the backyard. Where do you think all the autumn leaves went?"
He says BHP's critics should ask themselves what Newcastle would have been without the works.
"Everyone ducks that question," Risby said.
"Without the steelworks there'd be no Islington, Tighes Hill, Mayfield. All the English firms followed the steelworks. If it had gone to Whyalla they would have gone to Adelaide."
Cook said a clutch of former senior managers were there to mark the date and to meet their old bosses.
They included Alan Benn from engineering services, Mark Clement from business planning, Ken Youman from engineering technology and Vaughan Marten from engineering.
Frank Cordingley, who would become well-known in Newcastle as acting chief executive of Newcastle council during 2015-16, did 27 years at BHP and held various management roles.
Dick Delbridge, who was iron and steel manager under Risby, was also there.
Federal Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said her father had been a steelworks rigger.
There was "genuine fondness" for the place but also "terrible casualties" from workplace accidents.
Claydon said the the environment was healthier and the economy more diversified since closure.
Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes - on her way to more urgent meetings about the crisis at Stockton Beach - stood in the audience, as did a representative from Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp's office.
Nelmes said Newcastle's recovery after the closure was often cited as a successful transition but "in reality" there was little "ongoing assistance" from government or industry to soften the blow.
Earlier, Crakanthorp said the silence after the final bell at BHP was "stark and foreboding".
"Even though I wasn't a steelworker it left a heaviness in my heart I'd never experienced before," Crakanthorp said.
"We're a city of fighters. We've become a very different city, while respecting our past."
By most measures, the Hunter's ability to bounce back from the closure has become a defining endorsement of the region's resilienceBob Hawes, Hunter Business Chamber
Hunter Business Chamber CEO Bob Hawes said the chamber was part of an "unprecedented level of co-operation" at the time.
"It has not been without its challenges," Hawes said.
"But by most measures, the Hunter's ability to bounce back from the closure has become a defining endorsement of the region's resilience.
"Hunter Workers secretary Daniel Wallace said the scars of that "turbulent period" remain, with the mostly vacant steelworks site a daily reminder of what was lost.
"Steelworkers should be proud of their contribution to the city of Newcastle, for the life they pumped into the city and the identity that remains 20 years later."
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