Toni Rüttimann

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Toni Rüttimann, also known in Latin America as "Toni El Suizo" ("Swiss Toni"), (born 21 August 1967, Pontresina, Switzerland) is a Swiss bridge builder, working in Southeast Asia and in Latin America, where he is known as Toni el Suizo (Toni the Swiss).[1]

Bridgebuilder Toni Rüttimann - Toni el Suizo

Toni Rüttimann builds suspension bridges with communities in need and with recycled materials, and this independently, free and unpaid.[1]

Companies contribute their used material and local governments concede permits and help with transportation – respecting the fact that the main effort is made by the population, with no one asking anything in return, with the bridge belonging to the population who has built it.[2]

The bridges are for use of pedestrians, pack animals, motorcycles, two-wheel-tractors - but not for cars. In every country where Toni Rüttimann stays for some years, he builds up a small team of national welders and looks for one “bridgebuilder companion” whom he teaches his own work, and who later is able to perform maintenance.[3]

Toni Rüttimann has no residence: he carries everything he needs in two bags. One for his personal things, the other for his laptop computer and a few tools of his trade. [1][4]

Together with the population he has built 648 bridges which serve 1.9 million people (March 20, 2014).[5]

Biography[edit]

Beginnings in Ecuador[edit]

In 1987, two weeks before finishing high school at the Lyceum Alpinum in Zuoz, Toni sees on TV images of the destruction caused by an earthquake in Ecuador. He decides to fly to South America in the same night of graduation, taking his youth savings and 9000 Swiss Francs donated by the neighbours of Pontresina and the Engadine Valley. [1][3]

Once in the disaster area, in the northeast of Ecuador, Toni meets a Dutch hydraulics engineer. With his technical help and with the population of the village Flor del Valle, cut off from the outside by a tributary of the Aguarico river, he builds a simple suspension bridge of 52 meters. [4]

After six months in Ecuador, Toni returns to Switzerland and begins his studies of civil engineering at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. However, seven weeks later he decides to leave university and return to Ecuador. He fears that, getting used to this lifestyle in Switzerland for five years, he would never go back again to helping those in need. [3][4]

Bridge building system[edit]

In the Amazon region of Ecuador he puts together a system for building bridges with the communities, requiring almost no money: the villagers bring stone and sand, the hard wood and their labour. Toni begs for used wire rope from the oil drilling rigs in the region and for scrap pipe from the national oil company Petroecuador.[6]

From 1988 to 1990 he builds six bridges. One of them, across the Aguarico river with a span of 264 meters, remains until today the longest of his bridges.[7] Toni el Suizo, as the Ecuadorian peasants named him, had invented the “puentes de chatarra” (bridges made of scrap). [1] In the oil town Lago Agrio in the northeast of Ecuador, Toni finds a companion in Walter Yánez, a welder and mechanic.[4] Over the next seven years the two friends build another 82 bridges throughout Ecuador - always with the help of the local population – and also 10 bridges in Colombia, in the wake of the 1994 Páez River earthquake at the Volcano Nevado del Huila. [5]

From Ecuador to Central America[edit]

Until November of 1998 Toni and Walter built 99 bridges. That same month, with air-transport by the Ecuadorian Air Force, the two friends rush to help in Honduras, devastated by Hurricane Mitch, where they build another 33 bridges.[5] Other bridges follow in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and also an international bridge between Honduras and El Salvador. [5][8]

In 2000 Toni receives from the steel pipe manufacturer Tamsa (Tubos de Acero de México SA, today TenarisTamsa) in Veracruz, Mexico, pipes for 29 bridges in the State of Veracruz. However, bureaucratic complications for the import of the donated used wire rope from Houston, Texas, and for the entry of his two crane trucks from Honduras delay the beginning of construction work.[9]

Passage to Cambodia[edit]

During his visits to Switzerland Toni gives presentations in schools and universities. There he meets in 2001 a former refugee from Cambodia who asks him for help in the name of his people.[2][6]

In April 2001 he starts working with two teams, with Walter Yánez in Mexico and with his two new Cambodian companions, Yin Sopul, mechanic, and Pen Sopoan, truck driver, both survivors of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge.[4][6]

Paralyzed by Guillain-Barré Syndrome[edit]

In April 2002 Toni falls ill with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, triggered probably by a regular food infection in Cambodia. The syndrome destroys the myelin of the peripheral nerves, paralyzing the muscles, in his case from the head down.[3]

Confined to a hospital bed and then admitted to the National Medical Rehabilitation Centre of the Princess Sirindhorn in Thailand, Toni anyhow never stops working. In the beginning with a pencil between the lips and the use of his two thumbs, he creates his own computer-program in Excel and Filemaker for transforming the measurements sent by his colleagues from Mexico and Cambodia into clear and complete instructions, so that they can continue building bridges, by remote control, without him being physically present.[3][2]

This way, Walter completes 29 bridges in Mexico and then returns to Ecuador, where from 2003 onwards he continues to build bridges in his homeland. Until March 2014 the total of bridges built in Ecuador is 258.[5]

Bridges in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia[edit]

After two years of rehabilitation and exercises for up to eight hours per day, and in spite of the initially cautious prognosis of the doctors, Toni manages to walk again. So in 2004 he goes to Vietnam.

In the province of Ben Tre, with the help of Mai Son, Deputy Chairman of the Province in retirement and former Vietcong combatant, he creates a third team. From 2004 to 2008 in Vietnam he builds 58 bridges in the Mekong Delta provinces of Ben Tre, Bac Lieu, Tra Vinh and Dong Thap.[10]

In 2008, Toni continues his path into neighbouring Laos, where in 2006 he had already built three bridges with his Cambodian team. Now, with the Laotian truck driver Lanh and with three welders he builds 42 bridges until 2010.[5]

At the end of 2008 he goes to Myanmar, which at the time was still under embargo by the United States of America and the European Union. Even though no one gave him hope, he presents in Yangon a letter and pictures of bridges built to a member of the government, and only four days later he receives the authorization from the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, allowing him to build bridges also in Myanmar.[5]

Together with his Myanmar companion Aiklian, former artisanal gemstone digger, and with five welders stationed in a government shipyard in Yangon, he has built 75 bridges (until March 2014).[5]

At the end of 2010 Toni el Suizo begins his work also in Indonesia. Tenaris donates the pipes from its Indonesian subsidiary, while the national government concedes the permits and offers a welding workshop outside of Jakarta. The maritime transportation across this far flung republic is mostly contributed by the Indonesian Navy and Army. The land transportation, instead, is normally paid for by the community where the bridge is built. [1][3]

The Indonesian team consists of Suntana, former construction factory operator in Dubai, and of three welders. From 2011 to March 2014, the team built 30 bridges on Java and 6 on Sulawesi.[5]

Supply chain[edit]

In 2004, in Vietnam, Toni realizes the need for a constant flow of pipes and wire rope to supply the three teams in Vietnam, Cambodia and Ecuador. So he writes to his friends at Tamsa, in Mexico, who pass the request up to their mother company Tenaris, the world’s largest producer of seamless steel pipe.[6][11]

From 2005 onwards, Tenaris donates all the pipes for all the bridges in the world – initially scrap and surplus pipes, nowadays mostly new ones – from their mills in Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Indonesia, including the long distance ocean freight to final destination. [3][4][2]

From 2005 to 2014 have been donated and shipped 1500 tons of pipe.

Also starting from 2004, the bridge deck made a leap in quality. For 18 years it had been the peasants to cut the planks and beams from hard wood in the forest and to carry them to the bridge site. From 2004 onwards, checkered steel plates are contributed: in Vietnam and in Ecuador by the provincial governments, in Laos and Myanmar by the Argentinean mill of Ternium, one of Latin America’s principal steel producers.[11]

From 2004 to 2014 have been contributed 1300 tons of steel plates.

After having recycled during 18 years the wire rope from oil drilling operations, in 2005 Toni begins using wire rope from the mountain cable cars and chairlifts of his home country. In Switzerland, in fact, the cable cars are required to change them frequently, owing to the tight safety regulations imposed by the government. [3][12]

This way Toni receives ropes of several kilometres in length, of big diameter and good quality, sometimes even new ones. To collect them from distant mountains and valleys he relies on the coordination by Martin Jakob, a Swiss pensioner, on the trucks of a national transportation company and on a storage place in the middle of Switzerland – all free of charge. From there, shipping containers with hundreds of tons of wire rope each year depart for the different countries.

From 2005 to 2014 have been shipped 380 kilometres of wire rope.[5]

Not all bridges built by Toni are still in service. In several places, especially in Ecuador and Cambodia, they have been replaced by vehicular bridges built by the government. In other places they have been disfigured by the lack of maintenance by the population, or even, as it occurred in 2008 in the valley of the Páez River in Colombia, destroyed by natural disasters.[13]

Toni always works with local companions who live in the country, so that the interested communities can ask for their help for replacement of wire rope or other important repairs.

Until now no accident of importance has occurred on the construction of the bridges. [3] This is mainly owing to the local people being used to heavy labour and to very strict safety rules and procedures being followed during prefabrication and construction.[5]

Three special bridges[edit]

Toni el Suizo has no favourite bridge, but in a interview given to the Swiss magazine 'Schweizer Familie'[5] he remembers three of them: one is the longest bridge he has built, with a span of 264 meters over the Aguarico river in Ecuador. [7]

Then there is the international bridge between Honduras and El Salvador, that connects the communities of Mapulaca and Victoria, built by villagers that in years before had fought against each other. [12][8]

Finally, a bridge built twice in Myanmar because it had been destroyed by Kachin Independence Army insurgents during a guerrilla action in 2011. A monk, assisted by the most courageous men of the village, managed to rescue the bridge from the waters.[5]


Quotes[edit]

“My life is devoted to building bridges between the poorest men and women on the planet. My dream is not so much to build bridges as such, but rather to help heal wounds, ease suffering, draw people together from all walks of life to create something that is beautiful, something that is good.”[12]

“The strength of these bridges comes from the hearts of the people who built them with their own bare hands as well as from the invisible network of people from all over the world who have given the tangible support needed to make this endeavour possible. This strength comes from the people involved. It is the strength of hope that comes when you decide to take your future into your own hands, to change life and shape the world around you.” [12]

“I live my life in the name of humanity. Seeing what we can do and what we can overcome, to help so many people in need.” [3]

Statistics[edit]

Statistics of bridges, updated August 31, 2014[14]
Country Finished Population reached
Cambodia 76 208 200
Indonesia 38 329 200
Laos 43 129 900
Myanmar 84 557 500
Vietnam 58 248 000
Asia 299 1 472 800
Argentine 2 3 500
Colombia 19 30 200
Costa Rica 14 8 000
Ecuador 264 341 500
El Salvador 1 5 500
Honduras 33 89 700
Mexico 29 19 900
Nicaragua 4 7 700
Latin America 366 506 000
Total 665 1 978 800

Awards[edit]

  • 1997 23. Holder of Price Adele Duttweiler
  • 1999 Holder of Foundation Price Dr. J.E. Brandenberger
  • 2000 Special Award of International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE) to recognize his original contributions to bridgebuilding in favour of the poor.

From 2001 onwards, Toni declines nominations for awards and prizes

"I see myself on the same level of the people I work with. [...] I prefer not to receive any awards and not to attend any gala dinners.” [5][14]

External links[edit]

Slideshow with pictures of the international bridge between Honduras and El Salvador, Dan Van der Zwalm

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f (EN) Gabriella Panjaitan, Toni Rüttimann, The Bridgebuilder, Indonesia Expat, 02-12-2013.
  2. ^ a b c d (IT) Giulia Ossola, L'eroe invisibile, Corriere della Sera, 19-06-2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j (EN) Esmeralda Hendrix, Toni El Suizo, Building Bridges for the poor, The Jakarta Post, Indonesia, 15-08-2011
  4. ^ a b c d e f (EN) Robert Kiener, Bridges of Love, Reader’s Digest, 2007.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n (DE) Daniel Röthlisberger, Brücken für die Armen, Schweizer Familie, 20-03-2014.
  6. ^ a b c d (IT) Susanna Pesenti, Costruisco ponti dell'altro mondo nel mondo dei poveri della Terra, Eco di Bergamo, 21-11-2011
  7. ^ a b Aguarico River Bridge, Wikipedia
  8. ^ a b (ES) El Puente del Amor, El Diario de Hoy, El Salvador , 09.10.2000
  9. ^ (ES) El último idealista vuelve a Campana, Diario La Autentica Defensa, Argentina, 24-05-2009.
  10. ^ (VN) Mot nguoi Thuy Si xay giup Ben Tre 40 cau cap treo, Viet Bao, Vietnam, 18-11-2006.
  11. ^ a b (ES) En esta historia damos sin pedir nada a cambio, Diario El Informante, Argentina, 13-03-2013.
  12. ^ a b c d (EN) Barbara Fournier, Toni El Suizo, a lifetime dedicated to building bridges, SDC Traverse, Switzerland, 29-05-2007
  13. ^ (ES) Erupción en el Volcán del Huila. Dos avalanchas destruyeron puentes y amenazan zonas ribereñas, Caracol, Colombia, 20-11-2008.
  14. ^ a b Bridgebuilder Mailing list, Toni Rüttimann