Children and young people look for role models among those they know personally. Adults, being aware of this, must help guide the next generation on a life path that we shape with confidence and joie de vivre, as an expression of responsibility for the common good. If we do not do this, young people will take their role models from the media. There, children are exposed to influencers who, obligated by their sponsors to advertise, urge them to buy frivolous products. Or, they are exposed to celebrities who appear to lead lives of glamour and self-importance.
But there are other role models for our youth, people engaged in positive and inspiring activities who should be discussed in families and schools. One such role model is Toni Rüttimann, also known as Toni el Suizo (Toni the Swiss). As a young man Rüttimann, shaken by reports and images of a severe earthquake in Ecuador, left Switzerland and began a life devoted to helping others and to forming meaningful interpersonal bonds and relationships.
The 777th suspension bridge
It was 31 March 2018 when Rüttimann, from Pontresina, married his wife, Palin, a teacher from Thailand, in Pay Pin Taung in Myanmar. The ceremony took place on the 777th suspension bridge – a bridge that he initiated, planned, and built together with the villagers.1 But this story began much earlier:
In 1987, on the night of his graduation from the Lyceum Alpinum in Zuoz, Rüttimann set off for earthquake-ravaged Ecuador. Shaken by reports and pictures from the earthquake zone, he wanted to go there himself and use the 9,000 Swiss francs he had previously collected in the Upper Engadine for a social mission.
“Nothing had prepared me for so much chaos and destruction, for the isolation and the distances. It is one thing to see the images of a catastrophe on the television screen, and another to be in the midst of them,” he wrote in his memoirs.2 “Whole villages were still cut off behind the raging rivers. Endless families with their belongings in bundles wandered the countryside on foot, looking for a new life. Crying children stood in the ruins along the way, lost in their desolation. It was the first time in my life that I saw so much suffering.”
For the first time, Rüttimann realised the importance of bridges to basic survival. Without a bridge there was no access to food, no safe route to school, no access to badly needed medicine, and no way to get fuel.
A slightly slanted bridge
and an important decision
In the disaster area between the Andean foothills and the Amazon of Ecuador, Rüttimann met a Dutch engineer who was married in Ecuador and had also come to help. They joined forces: Hugo, the engineer, had the necessary skills and also knew of a place where several hundred people desperately needed a bridge. Rüttimann now knew how and where he wanted to use his money. Together they created a 50-metre suspension bridge.
“It turned out to be a somewhat sloping bridge, but it was a useful bridge,” he recalls. A second bridge was already in the planning stage when he returned to Switzerland, six months later, to start studying civil engineering. He hoped it would give him the professional tools he needed to provide effective help later on.
“But at night, alone in my room, the images from Ecuador came back: the lost children and the screaming on the riverbank.” In the weeks to come, the question of whether he was taking the right path with his studies beset him: “You want to study here for five years? You will get used to all the comforts: good meals three times a day, a nice home, friends, girlfriend, sports, holidays. And then, after a long five years, will you still be determined enough to say, yes, now I’m ready, now I’m going to help the poor?”
At the end of the sixth week, he logged out of ETH, said goodbye to friends and family, cleared out his savings account and went back to Ecuador. And thus began his life as a bridge builder.
“He believed in
my dream of the bridge”
His second bridge was not yet finished when he met Jesús Rodriguez, who helped him complete the half-finished 80-metre project. As Rüttimann recalls:
“[Rodriguez] was a peón, a farm worker, employed by a farm worker, the lowest link in the chain. His job was to cut down the thicket with a machete and collect coffee. His hands were strong, his fingers scarred and bent. He was not yet thirty, though he did not know exactly how old he was, for his mother had died when he was born and his father had never appeared. As a little orphan, he had come from Colombia through the jungle across the border to Lago Agrio. Not a single day in his life had he gone to school; he had learned to write shakily by himself. He was brave and funny. He was my teacher and friend. And: he believed in my dream of the bridge.”
No child’s play
Together they moved to El Nazareno, where they built their third bridge. And then they started their fourth bridge, even though this seemed crazy: It was to have a 264-metre span, over the Rio Aguarico, and would free ten village communities from being cut off.
They had no more money, no more tools, no more material, not even a cable, and above all they did not know how to plan and construct such a bridge. In the end, they found some help from an oil drilling company in the jungle, which finally gave them a discarded but still reliable steel cable. But that was only one hurdle they had to overcome, because building such an extraordinarily long suspension bridge was no child’s play.
Here, too, a solution was found. In the small oil capital of Lago Agrio, in the rainforest region of Ecuador, there are two 270-metre-long suspension bridges next to each other, on which a suspended pipeline carrying a large part of the national oil production crossed the Rio Aguarico.
“I spent countless hours under these suspension bridges observing, counting, and measuring,” wrote Rüttimann. Finally, the chief engineer, under whose supervision the suspension bridges had been built, offered to help him design a bridge plan. The first step was taken. Next, it was a matter of finding materials.
Tubes, support structures, cement and much more had to be begged from oil companies and cement factories, which again took almost a year. Only then could construction begin. In his memoirs, Rüttimann impressively described how much knowledge it took and how much effort it cost him, Jesús, and the entire village, until the longed-for bridge could be blessed by the bishop two years later, when it was inaugurated with a big celebration.
Don’t let up
That was the beginning. Over the course of the next decades, many pedestrian bridges were built, with the design and construction continuously improved upon. Rüttimann did not let up. For decades, he collected used steel cables from drilling companies in the jungles of Ecuador and Colombia, as well as in Houston, Texas, for the bridges in Central America.
Then, in 2005, he began using donated discarded steel cables from Swiss cable car companies, which have to be replaced regularly because of strict safety regulations, but which are still far oversized for the bridges. In the last 20 years, these donations have amounted to 517 kilometres of cable from 71 Swiss cableways, some of it even new, from the Swiss manufacturer Fatzer.
Fortunately, he no longer has to beg for supplies. For example, he receives donated steel tubes needed for bridge piers and flooring from the world’s largest tube producer, Tenaris. The Argentinian steel company Ternium donates corrugated plates. Perhaps it was the humanitarian nature of Rüttimann’s work that prompted them to make their donations.
Together at work
In the first 14 years, until 2001, the bridges were built in Latin America. In Ecuador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, and other countries as well, 332 bridges now lead across rivers and deep gorges. But they are not simply “delivered”. When a bridge is built, the entire community helps. Villagers organise the transport of the construction material and build the foundations – it is a community effort.
Community participation ensures that only bridges that are really necessary are built. They are not road bridges, but 1.70m wide footbridges that connect people in the immediate vicinity. Today, 435 bridges have become an indispensable help in the daily lives of more than half a million people in Latin America.
Earlier on, Rüttimann used to return to Switzerland once a year. He gave lectures and visited schools. When a Cambodian refugee approached him at an event in Switzerland in 2001 and reported that there was also a lack of bridges in his home country, Rüttimann shifted his work to Southeast Asia.
Hard times and
40 to 50 bridges per year
But then came a difficult time. In Cambodia Rüttimann fell ill with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which left him almost completely paralysed from one day to the next. He was in hospital for several months and, for two years, he struggled to get back into life.
Even standing and walking is not easy for Rüttimann today, posing many challenges for someone who prefers to sit on the supporting cables at construction sites while a pedestrian footbridge is being installed underneath. Despite the many difficulties, something good eventually came from the illness: During his convalescence, Rüttimann developed a computer programme to facilitate standardised, remote-controlled construction of his suspension bridges.
Today, detailed plans can be drawn up incorporating information on the terrain and the span of the desired bridge. The structure can then be welded and prepared using a modular system. This allows Rüttimann and his teams to build 40 to 50 suspension bridges a year in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. One of them is the 777th bridge in Pay Pin Taung.
“Best build your own bridges”
Anyone who has heard Rüttimann give one of his talks understands why he captivates children, young people, and adults with his personality and humanitarian work. They imagine themselves along side him when he talks about his strenuous work and the many hardships he takes on without seeking fame or publicity. His commitment, which demands a lot of effort and a modest lifestyle, appeals to them. Listening to Rüttimann, a bridge is built between his story and themselves.
At the age of 56, how much longer can Rüttimann continue his work? “I don’t think I can take it for another 15 years,” he said in an interview five years ago.3 When asked if he would retire and settle down at 65, he said that he will certainly try to continue to work for another three years.
“Because my material store in Switzerland had to be liquidated, I now have material for 170 bridges that I have distributed in Myanmar, Indonesia, and Ecuador. We are still building these bridges.” He has no shortage of material, because he is constantly receiving new requests from companies that want to provide him with cables. He can’t refuse them, and adds, “If I can hold out for one more year, I’ll build 40 more bridges. That will help 200,000 people.”
In the meantime, five years have passed. Rüttimann does not yet know when he will be back in Switzerland, but he wrote to the students who had heard about him and would now like to meet him in person. “It’s nice to hear that our bridge story seems to you to be something valuable. […] There are now 898 completed bridges, and they are helping 2.4 million people. Better than nothing, I think. Meanwhile, you’d best just build your own bridges where and how you can,” Rüttimann offered his encouragement to the students. And he himself does the same.
A special bridge and new plans
Bridge No. 777 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Rüttimann’s life. He started a family, and four and a half years ago his wife Palin gave birth to their daughter, Athina. “She is a Thaidi (a Thai Heidi), happy and free here in nature, with a view from the mountain across to Myanmar, far from the usual chaos. And soon she will come with me to the first bridge building over in Myanmar,” he wrote me in an email for this article from the Myanmar-Thailand border.
But what is happening here in the West also concerns him. People are separated as if by a river from what they are actually capable of, he said in the newspaper interview: “They are constantly distracted by the daily struggle. They no longer know what a person is actually capable of achieving.”4
That is why he wants to use his knowledge to encourage people to think about what is actually possible. At the end of this year, he plans to sit down to write a book from his notes and edit a film series from extensive film footage. “So, material exists, I just have to assemble it properly now, plaster it and paint it.” He describes his projects as if they are new bridges –and they are. What a treasure they will be! •
1 The impressive film, translated into 16 languages, can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/270969266/4479f7b445.
2 Toni Rüttimann’s personal recollections of the early years of his bridge-building days can be found on the website of the Dr J. E. Brandenberger Foundation, of which he was a prize-winner in 1999, and which have been reproduced for this article with the kind permission of the author. https://www.stiftungbrandenberger.ch/index.php/de/archiv/69-1999-toni-ruettimann.
3 see https://www.suedostschweiz.ch/wirtschaft/2018-02-18/brueckenbauer-toni-el-suizo-will-kuenftig-europaeern-helfen
4 see https://www.suedostschweiz.ch/wirtschaft/2018-02-18/brueckenbauer-toni-el-suizo-will-kuenftig-europaeern-helfen
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