The West Australian
Wittenoom plaque aid to reflection
Bronwen Duke is confronted by the harrowing impact of asbestosrelated disease every time she looks at a family photo.
Ms Duke, 59, has lost 13 family members from mesothelioma or asbestosis over four decades.
She was born in Wittenoom, where many of her relatives worked in and around the now infamous asbestos mine.
Her grandfather Phil McKenna moved to the Pilbara town in the 1950s to take up a job as the foreman at the mine’s mill.
Mr McKenna’s decision to give his family a better chance at life devastatingly led to a string of painful deaths many years later.
His wife Esther, daughters Valerie (Bronwen’s mother), Shirley, Virginia and Barbara and son Frank all moved to Wittenoom with him.
They, and the daughters’ spouses whom they all met in Wittenoom, have all since died from asbestos-related disease.
“I have lost both my grandparents, I have lost my dad, I’ve lost my brother, my mum,” Ms Duke said.
Ms Duke was five when her family moved to Perth because her father got sick. Her older brother David was six — he has since died from mesothelioma.
She has had regular tests to understand why she has not contracted the incurable illness, which starts as a cancer on the lining of the lungs and rapidly spreads through the body.
“It is fast — it is virulent, it is quite harrowing to watch people go through the process of mesothelioma — it basically strangles them,” she said.
Ms Duke, who lives in Canberra, is in Perth today for the unveiling of a memorial in West Perth’s Solidarity Park to the Wittenoom victims of asbestosrelated disease.
Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia chief operating officer Melita Markey said her organisation had lobbied for decades for such recognition.
She said despite the mine closing in 1966 and the loss of family and home, people still felt a connection to Wittenoom.
“They needed somewhere to go to reflect,” Ms Markey said.
More than 4000 people have died from asbestos-related disease in Australia and Wittenoom is the main source of the substance.