News Coverage from 50 Years Ago

BY ADAM BLACKSHAW

Fifty years ago, on 15 October 1970, Australia's worst-ever industrial accident occurred when the West Gate Bridge collapsed into the Yarra River in Melbourne, killing 35 people. 

Reporting on the Disaster

On 14 October the West Gate Bridge was nearing completion when an 11 cm gap was reported between two spans. The solution was to use kentledge weights, often employed as ballast in ships and as counterweights in cranes, to push down the structure and realign the girders. However, by all accounts too much weight was used, causing the bridge to buckle. 

On 15 October, attempts to straighten the buckle failed. Soon before midday, a 112-metre span between two piers, weighing 2,000 tonnes, plummeted 50 metres into the mud of the Yarra River.

Here is National Nine News aerial footage of the scene, with voice-over from reporter John Bailey:

Ambulances rushed to the site from all over the city and volunteers soon arrived to assist. Survivors with injuries had to be restrained from trying to locate their fallen co-workers.

In total, 35 construction workers were killed and 18 injured. Many who died were on their lunch break underneath the bridge in workers' huts, which were crushed by the falling span. Others were working on the span when it fell. 

The noise of the impact was heard 20 kilometres away and buildings hundreds of metres from the disaster were shaken and sprayed with mud.

Here is Seven Network file footage of the aftermath of the disaster and operations underway to clear the wreckage:

Present at the scene

You can also listen to excerpts from NFSA Oral History interviews with two news camera operators who were there at the scene:

Ron Ashmore Oral History – West Gate Bridge Disaster, 1970

Reg Boulter Oral History – West Gate Bridge Disaster, 1970

Aftermath of the Tragedy 

The following morning while rescuers were still searching through the rubble, Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte announced a royal commission into the disaster. News of the tragedy was widely reported overseas and bridges of similar design in Europe were closed temporarily and tested for safety.

The royal commission concluded in 1971, and its findings paved the way for strengthening occupational health and safety laws in Australian workplaces.

Work recommenced on the bridge project in 1972, and many of the surviving workers returned to finish the job. The West Gate Bridge opened in 1978. 

Today, six fragments of the collapsed bridge are located in Monash University’s Clayton campus gardens to remind students of the potentially tragic consequences that can result from errors in engineering. A West Gate Bridge Memorial Park, dedicated to the victims of the disaster, opened at Spotswood in 2004.