On October 15, 1970, when I was only 6 years old, 35 men left home for work on the West Gate Bridge, but never made it home. I don’t recall the event much myself, but it spurred some interest in me, enough to research it and this was the result.
The West Gate Bridge was to be built as a large cable –stayed box girder bridge in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Its location spans the Yarra River, just north of its mouth into Port Phillip, and was to be a vital link between the inner city and Melbourne/s Western suburbs with the industrial suburbs in the west and with the city of Geelong, 80 Kilometres to the south-west.
CARRIES 8 lanes (4 inbound, 4 outbound)
CROSSES OVER The Yarra River
HEIGHT ABOVE WATER 58 metres
DESIGN Cable-stayed box girder
LONGEST SPAN 336 metres
TOTAL LENGTH 2,582.6 metres
WIDTH 37.3 metres
COMPARISON Twice as long as Sydney Harbour Bridge
ATTRACTIONS Passes over Yarra River and Westgate Park
CONTRACTORS John Holland and World Services
There were a number of contractors engaged to perform various elements of the overall construction of the West Gate Bridge, with the two main ones being Holland Constructions (Hollands’) and World Services.
Construction began in early 1968 and two and a half years later, the two sides of the bridge finally met in the middle. But there was a problem: one side, the North side, was 11 centimetres higher than the other.
Engineers tried to fix the problem, by loading the higher side of the bridge with 10 massive concrete blocks weighing eight tonnes each, in an attempt to effectively push that side down to the correct height. As the bolts were removed, the bridge snapped back and the span collapsed.
However, in doing this, the process then caused a buckle in the bridge. Engineers then decided to try and fix this problem they would remove a number of bolts to ease some of the stress on the structure.
Prior to this, there was an nervousness among some of the workers who had spent a lot of time on top of the bridge. They were concerned about the movement, it swaying back and forth in the wind. A similar style of bridge with the same designer, Freeman Fox, had collapsed in Wales in June killing four. The West Gate workers demanded answers and many refused to work at all. The engineer who designed the bridge Jack Hindshaw was sent from London to reassure the men at a meeting that the design was completely safe.
After the meeting, many were convinced all was good. At the end of the day, how many of them knew enough about engineering to stand up to the designer of the bridge. They clearly were not on the same level.
The men voted to return to work.
However, there fears were tragically justified, as no one could foresee the carnage that was about to happen.
The day started just as every other. As many witnesses would describe it, at 11.50am, just before lunch, many were packing up their tools when they heard the sound of an unbelievable crack. Some referred to it as an explosion.
Already critically weakened by a series of engineering and construction blunders, the giant structure between piers 10 and 11 collapsed, sending 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete 50 metres to the muddy ground below.
It was amongst all that mud, concrete and steel, 35 men lay dead or dying, from being either thrown from the top of the bridge, or being buried beneath it.
The first section of the 110 metre span of the bridge that hit the ground, landed on huts where workers were having their lunch, crushing the men instantly.
The second section fell on 500 gallons of diesel tanks at the site, triggering a huge explosion that could be heard kilometres away. It shattered windows in nearby buildings and the fire created an inferno.
One survivor recalls a fellow work colleague running towards him completely on fire calling out his name. Many who weren’t so lucky, perished in the fire.
Many of those who survived the collapse, instantly set about trying help the injured and dead. Some men who had fallen from the bridge into the river, emerged from it battered and broken, covered in oil and mud. Looking up from the ground, you’re struck down by how high the bridge actually was and it would be a miracle if anyone survived the fall. But 18 men did.
Getting to the site was not difficult, but when emergency services arrived, they were met with chaos and carnage.
If a similar disaster were to happen today, highly trained and well- equipped paramedics, fire services and police would do the work, however back in 1970, emergency services were far more primitive. Days after the collapse, they were still fishing the dead out of the muddy Yarra River, most unrecognisable having had their flesh and eyes gnawed out by water rats.
In the days to come, the death toll would leave 28 women widowed, and 88 children without fathers.
To add further insult to injury, within days the workers were laid off by employer John Holland. They were first told to take the Monday off and when they all arrived for work on the Tuesday, they were greeted with a car park that was closed. They were all herded into the car park like cattle and in unity, sacked on the spot. No counselling, no support, nothing.
Compensation payouts back then weren’t that great, so it was up to the general public to send in donations, to lift the pensions paid out to the widows.
It was one of the worst Australian industrial disasters that reshaped workplace safety and the introduction of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, giving workers a voice and the right to bring in experts if deemed necessary.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Royal Commission investigation and final report described the collapse as “utterly unnecessary” passing full blame onto the reckless actions of the designers and builders.
It took ten years for the bridge to be completed at a cost of $202 million. When it opened in 1978, it was tolled, but these tolls were later abolished in 1985, due to public pressure from drivers using other routes to avoid the toll.
SUICIDE / JUMPERS
In 2006, the State Government, spent 1.3 million erecting boom barriers at each entrance to the bridge to block traffic in the event of a terrorist attack, though it has also been used to stop traffic for other reasons such as breakdowns, accidents and of course the many “jumpers” hell bent on committing suicide.
Police data in the early 2000’s show that one suicide attempt happens every three weeks on the West Gate Bridge. It was so popular, that the press stopped reporting on jumpers in the hope to deter people. Jumpers also put the lives of others in danger, as there are reported incidents where police officers themselves have been dangling off the side of the bridge holding onto would be suicide jumpers.
In 2000, a Royal Hospital study found that at least 62 people tried to end their lives between 1991 and 1998. Seven of those 62 survived their fall. Around 74% of jumpers were male, with an average age of 33 and more than 70% were suffering from mental illness. 31% who jumped fell into land, and those who landed in the water, may have survived the fall, but drowned afterwards.
It took the death of Gabriela Garcia and her 22 month old son Oliver in 2008, and seven months later in January 2009, the death of Darcey Freeman, a 4 year old girl who was thrown off the bridge by her father, to implement anti-suicide fencing. Darcey survived the fall only to die later in hospital from her injuries.
Five days after Darcey, in February, 17 year old Allem Halkic jumped from the inbound lanes and began walking up the bridge from KFC at the Todd Road Exit. He reportedly rang the vic roads operator via an emergency phone, telling them “You better get someone here before I jump”. The police responded immediately but couldn’t resuscitate him and he died at the scene. This case gained notoriety, as Halkic was a victim of cyberbullying.
Following these deaths, a temporary suicide barrier was erected in February 2009, with a permanent metal mesh barrier installed during 2010 – 2011 at a cost of 20 million. The barrier has been credited for reducing suicide attempts by 85%.
THE WEST GATE BRIDGE AND IT’S FUTURE
Strong growth in the Western Suburbs comes with traffic congestion during peak periods. Proposals to abate congestion have included bridge widening, building a tunnel under the river, or even adding a second deck to the bridge. Many such suggestions have been met with harsh criticism by locals, community groups, and environmentalists.
The West Gate bridge was built to handle 40,000 vehicles a day, but has since increased to 165,000 a day.
In December 2008, the State Government announced a plan to build a three kilometre road tunnel under Footscray and the Maribyrnong River. It will be known as the “East-West Road Connection”, at a cost estimated at more than $2.5 billion.
The East West Link project which connects to the East West Road Connection attracted criticism from the local councils of Melbourne, Yarra, Boroondara and Geelong politicians with complaints that it was a misuse of public funding.
The decision to focus on the eastern end of the project was simply crazy and unjust considering Melbourne’s continuing traffic issue was the second river crossing into the city from the west. The West Gate Freeway traffic was growing by 2.1 % a year compared to the 1.8% on the Eastern Freeway. With Wyndham and Melton becoming the fastest growing development at the moment (20,000 people a year), it would mean that residents of Footscray and Yarraville would have to endure heavy truck traffic on local roads for years until the western section of the East West Link was built.
Congestion on the West Gate Bridge and in the western suburbs has become a major and growing hindrance to commuter and business traffic between Geelong and Melbourne. If the government can in fact fix this problem, it is yet to be seen, we live in hope.
With every year that passes, the number of survivors and the memory of the West Gate Bridge disaster fades with it.
But there still are lessons to be learnt, and to honour the memory of the 35 comrades who died as a result of the bridges collapse, a memorial plaque was paid for and erected by bridge workers and unveiled on 15 October, 1978. Location: Hyde Street, Under the West Gate Bridge, Spotswood.
The inscription reads:
Construction workers employed on West Gate Bridge erected
and dedicated this memorial to their 35 workmates who were killed when a span of the bridge collapsed during construction at 11.50 am on 15th October 1970.
Our comrades who lost their lives were:
- Royvin Barbuto – Boilermaker
- Ross Bigmore – Carpenter
- Amadeo Boscolo – Carpenter
- Bernard Butters – Boilermaker
- Cyril Carmichael – Ironworker
- Peter Crossley – Engineer
- Peter Dawson – Rigger
- Abraham Eden – Rigger
- Anthony Falzon – Carpenter
- Esequiel Fernandez – Ironworker
- Bernard Fitzsimmonds – Ironworker
- Victor Gerada – Ironworker
- John Grist – Boilermaker
- William Harburn – Boilermaker
- Jack Hindshaw – Engineer
- Trevor Hunsdale – Fitter
- John Little – Rigger
- Charles Lund – Rigger
- Peter McGuire – Rigger
- Ian Miller – Engineer
- Jeremiah Murphy – Rigger
- Dennis O’Brien – Rigger
- Joseph Ozelis – First Aid
- Frank Piermarini – Rigger
- George Pram – Rigger
- Lesley Scarlett – Ironworker
- Christopher Stewart – Boilermaker
- Alfonso Suarez – Boilermaker
- William Tracy – Engineer
- George Tsihilidis – Boilermaker
- Edgar Upsdell – Ironworker
- Robert West – Boilermaker
- Robert Whelan – Boilermaker
- Patrick Woods – Rigger
- Barry Wright – Boilermaker
In memory of workers of all lands who are killed in industrial accidents.
WEST GATE MEMORIAL PARK
Also the West Gate Bridge Memorial Park Association was also formed. This association increases awareness in the community of workplace accidents by encouraging debate and action with government, industry and the trade union movement to promote safe work environments.
The West Gate Memorial Park located on the actual site of the Bridges collapse, is evocative of the tragedy of workplace accidents while honouring the brave men who worked upon and under it.
This particular disaster will be etched into the memory of many Melburnians, some still to this very day, able to pin point exactly where they were, when the news came through, about the tragedy.
A bridge built with the sweat and blood of the working class man.
Today with its gentle curve, the bridge proudly adorns the airspace over the Yarra River as a lasting monument to the men who died building it.
This article is dedicated to the memory of 35 men who lost their lives and the courageous women who live on to honour them.