Farm story 6: Death in the fog

Postcard showing Tjörn bridge, 1960

When I drive out to the farm from my flat on the outskirts of Gothenburg I head north. After 21 kilometres, and nearing the ancient town of Kungälv, I cross the river under the looming mass of the old fort Bohus fästning. There I change to the northbound E6, the motorway between Gothenburg and Oslo, and after another 29 kilometers through pleasant Swedish countryside I turn off for the island of Tjörn.

You can see the bridge from a few kilometres away, although some pedants says it’s wrong to call it “the” bridge, for there are actually three of them. Perhaps it’s more correct to say that a road is carried over to Tjörn across three small islands. The first section is short and leads from the mainland over to the island of Stenungsön. After a short drive through woods on both sides there’s a short tunnel, after which the bridge sweeps high above the sea to land on another rocky island where it changes direction and launches itself on the third and last leg. This section broadens into three lanes of traffic and soars 45 metres above the ocean, after which it finally descends onto the island of Tjörn. This last section is the longest and most spectacular of the three and is a cable-stay bridge, meaning that it has two enormous concrete pylons, well over 100 metres high, from which cables run directly to the deck which carries the road. The whole road from mainland to Tjörn is is 664 metres long and if you’re lucky enough to cross it when traffic is light and visibility good, it offers a spectacular view of wide, ever-changing skies, with the sea far below and the distant silhouettes of small islands dotting the fjord.

But this bridge isn’t the first one to be built on the site. In front of me I have a black and white postcard of the first Tjörn bridge, which I found at the back of one of Olle’s drawers. It says in small white letters along the bottom of the picture postcard, Tjörnbron. Delen Källön-Almön (Tjörn bridge, Källön to Almön section) and it shows the third of the three sections of the bridge linking the mainland with Tjörn. It was inaugurated in 1960 and was a graceful structure, an arch bridge made of two parallel steel arcs bolted together to support a road. The postcard shows the ends of the arches buried in concrete plinths built on the shoreline of the narrow passage, just above sea level. This road itself is quite narrow, allowing only single lane traffic in each direction and it is supported by steel poles from the arches and by concrete pillars rising from the earth and stone of the islands. The photographer chose one of the highest spots on Källön for his picture, as he is almost on a level with the bridge, which stood about 40 metres above the sea. I guess the photo was taken shortly before it was formally opened, for the road looks almost entirely empty except for one car which is tiny at this distance and standing stationary near the brow of the bridge. There is no sign of human activity on the postcard – no workmen carrying out last-minute adjustments to the railings, no boat passing under the arch. It could be an empty film set waiting for the director to call “action.” At first glance the reverse side is blank except for the small printed words, Henry Danielsson foto, Göteborg dividing the space for the address from the rest of the card, but along the very top of the postcard there are four or five lines of faint brown print, now so blurred and faded that they’re illegible. Perhaps the postcard was distributed as a souvenir of the inauguration and the printed text has faded over the sixty years since, or it might have been put carelessly on top of a newly-printed page before the ink had dried.

When the current bridge opened in 1981 it was to replace the section shown in the postcard, which had collapsed a year earlier with the loss of eight lives. It is a terrible story and one that left a mark on the community for years after. The accident happened in the early hours of a January day in 1980, a cold, dark night when the bulk carrier Star Clipper was on its way from Norway to Uddevalla, only a few kilometres north of Tjörn. The ship had picked up a pilot for the last stages of the voyage and all was proceeding as it should. The night was clear and windless and the sea calm, although there were some broken shards of ice on its surface. The ship had to make two sharp turns to set it on the right course as it approached the bridge and the first manoeuvre went as normal. However, when the pilot tried to make the second turn a couple of hundred metres from the narrow passage under the bridge, the rudder did not respond. This, combined with the sea ice and strong currents made the ship impossible to control, causing the vessel to come too near the west side of the bridge and finally to collide with one of its supports. The impact caused the crane on the ship’s gantry to cut through the base of the arch and almost immediately, at 1.30 AM, one of the arches collapsed, bringing down with it 300 metres of road, which landed on the deck of the ship or slipped into the sea. As the bridge of the ship was damaged the pilot couldn’t get to the ship’s radio and all electricity and communications to and from the ship were down. However, the pilot did have have a hand-held VHF radio and immediately tried to pass on news of the accident. Unfortunately, the sound quality of his message was poor and precious minutes were lost as he tried to make himself understood to people who naturally enough found it difficult to believe what they were hearing.

By this time the main danger to life and limb was not to the seamen on the ship – it was to people on the bridge 40 metres above. A few minutes after the ship collided with the bridge and the road collapsed, the inevitable happened. A car came driving from the mainland and although visibility at sea level remained good, high up on the bridge a thick mist had formed. The driver saw nothing until it was too late and he drove straight over the edge, his car plunging into the sea below, its headlights blazing.

Fifteen minutes later a truck drove slowly onto the bridge from the same direction, inching along because the driver had a heavy load and didn’t want to have to brake suddenly. There was slush on the road and visibility was poor so he kept an eye on the railings which ran along both sides of the bridge. This, and his slow speed saved his life for he noticed that the railings seemed to have disappeared. When he got out to investigate he discovered that he was only 10 metres away from the sheer drop to the sea below. But others hadn’t been so lucky and he saw tyre marks which went right up to the brink – and disappeared. As he stood there in what must have felt like a nightmare, he saw the lights of a car driving towards him from the opposite side of the gap. Thinking quickly he flashed his headlights as a warning to the approaching driver. It didn’t help, and he could only watch as the vehicle plunged 40 metres over the edge, turning upside down as it fell.

There are different estimates of how long it took to close the Tjörn side of the bridge - some sources say 40 minutes and others 60. No police were on duty on Tjörn at that hour and the off-duty policeman who received the alarm had first to drive 10 minutes to the police station to pick up a police car, his uniform and equipment, and a further 20 minutes to get to the bridge. During this time the crew of the Star Clipper were desperately trying to warn drivers of the cars they saw approaching the gap. In desperation, they tried to launch a lifeboat to take a crewman to land where he hoped to climb the cliff and raise the alarm, but because of the ice around the ship they couldn’t manoeuvre the boat. When they saw the lights of a truck approaching the gap above their heads they sent up flares as a warning. They must have been overjoyed when they saw it stop, but their relief was short-lived. The driver, seeing nothing, got back into his cab and continued. If those watchers are still alive their dreams must be haunted by their fruitless efforts to save the doomed men. In total, three cars from the mainland and four vehicles from Tjörn were lost, with the lives of eight men.

It took only 17 months to demolish that section of the bridge and build a new one, which was seven months ahead of schedule. But even so these were difficult months for the islanders who either had to take a ferry to the mainland or, if they wanted to get to Stenungsund on the mainland, had to drive over an island to the north and make a 100-kilometre detour. Olle was working in Gothenburg at the time and he told me that the queues to the ferry to Tjörn on a Friday afternoon could be three hours long - but the frustration and irritation of those months are largely forgotten now.

There was an enquiry after the accident, but no clear cause was ever established. Nobody was held accountable, neither the bridge designers, the crew of the Star Clipper nor the pilot. The report simply noted that the currents had pushed the ice together, forming a barrier which prevented the rudder from turning the ship. Nor is there a monument to those who died that day. The question has been discussed frequently over the years, the last time in 2009, when plans were afoot to celebrate the opening of the first bridge fifty years before. Members of the committee planning how to commemorate the event were keen to mark the first time Tjörn had a direct link to the mainland, to emphasise the great employment opportunities the bridge had given the islanders and the prosperity it brought with it. But there was little interest in remembering the loss of life the catastrophe had entailed - the focus was firmly on the future.

But people still remember what happened that night. Even all these years later if you happen to be driving over Tjörn bridge in the dark and it’s getting foggy you will find your mind turning less to the future and more to the tragic events of the past, and you reduce your speed and strain your eyes to see the road ahead.

© Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023

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