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Eyewitness Accounts

Inquest Deposition Files, VPRS 24/P3, unit 120

Inquest Deposition Files, VPRS 24/P3, unit 120

Collapsed deck viewed from neighbouring pier Courtesy VicRoads

Collapsed deck viewed from neighbouring pier Courtesy VicRoads

An official party inspecting the wreckage VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

An official party inspecting the wreckage VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

As well as the high public interest in the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors of the disaster, witness testimony was vital to the official understanding of the collapse.

These depositions are extracts taken from the proceedings of the royal commission (1970–71) and coronial inquests (1973). Many of the witnesses read statements which they had made previously to police, shortly after the accident.

Depositions before the Coroner

Proceedings before the coroner were conducted on 12 April 1973. Coronial proceedings were not conducted until the royal commission’s report could be fully considered.

In his statement, the coroner summarised the report and related the findings to the deaths of each of the victims, stating:

‘The deaths of thirty-three of the men will be recorded as being due to misadventure, and the death of the two of them [who died later in hospital] as being due to accident and misadventure.’
(Inquest Deposition Files, VPRS 24/P3, unit 120)

The coroner’s statement also provides a concise summary of the royal commission’s findings. The top image at left links to a copy of this statement.

Below are extracts from the coronial inquests. They include eyewitness accounts from various individuals associated with the accident.

DEPOSITION OF A WITNESS
Taken and sworn before the coroner 12 April 1973
Occupation: Boilermaker’s Assistant

‘On the 15th day of October, 1970, I was employed as a boilermaker’s assistant … on the West Gate Bridge project.

About 11.45 a.m. on that day I went to the bolt shed … This bolt shed was situated about the middle of the span 10–11 on the southern half.

While I was in the bolt shed I looked out the window, that would be to the north. I saw a boilermaker on his knees, he had an air gun and was tightening bolts in the middle of the span where boxes 4 and 5 joined. …

At this part of the bridge there was a buckle in the upper decking. This buckle was on the free edge of the northern section in the vicinity of boxes 4 and 5. I know that this buckle had been there for some time.

I saw the buckle was getting worse and I also noticed flakes of rust flying off the steel decking where the buckle was.

I think what first made me look out of the window was that I heard bolts snapping. When I saw what was happening I said … “We are going to go down.” By that I meant that I thought that the bridge was going to fall down.

I sat down on a box of bolts and waited for the bridge to fall. I cannot remember what happened after that because the bridge fell and I was knocked unconscious.’

 

DEPOSITION OF A WITNESS
Taken and sworn before the coroner 12 April 1973
Occupation: Detective Inspector in Charge of the Homicide Squad, Russell Street

‘On the 15th day of October 1970, I was at the Coroner’s Court, Melbourne, assisting the Coroner … in an inquest then taking place. Approximately mid-day on that day, 15/10/70, the Inquest hearing was interrupted and the Coroner … immediately adjourned the Court and had a short discussion with me, following which I accompanied … [the Coroner] and some members of the Police Force to the site of the collapse of the 10–11 span of the West Gate Bridge on the western side of the River Yarra.

The scene was one of wreckage. Rescue operations had been organised on an extremely urgent basis. Services such as the Melbourne Harbour Trust, the State Electricity Commission, Victorian Civil Ambulance Service, the Police Department and the Site Project Emergency Service attended.

The Chief Commissioner of Police … [the] Chief Superintendent … and other high ranking Police Officers also attended.

The Coroner … conferred with myself and other Officers of Police. The Coroner declared Phase 2 of the State Emergency Plan and also took steps to form an expert committee which would ultimately provide valuable knowledge to any subsequent inquiry. These men … were contacted by Police …

Of prime importance at the time was the removal of injured persons from the wreckage and the recovery of the bodies of those killed. These rescue operations continued throughout the day and night and into following days until all the dead and injured had been finally accounted for.

The Victorian Government subsequently commissioned a Royal Commission to investigate the collapse of span 10–11 of the West Gate Bridge …

The expert committee which was originally formed to assist the Coroner gave invaluable assistance to this Royal Commission, and some of the members gave evidence before it.

The Royal Commission occupied a total of eighty sitting days and heard evidence from a total of 52 persons, including many civil engineers …

I produce a printed copy of the report of the Royal Commission.

I also produce a printed copy of the findings of the Technical Committee set up by the City Coroner …’

 

Royal Commission Testimony

This is an extract from a statement made by a retired farmer who, having taken a keen interest in the development of the bridge, was eating his lunch at the public viewing area at the time of the collapse:

‘On Thursday the 15th October, 1970, between ten to and five to twelve noon, I was sitting on a seat under the shelter of the Viewing Area on the south side of the West Gate Bridge, eating my lunch. I heard a few taps from a hammer on the bridge, about five seconds later a loud noise similar to the breaking of a steel shaft. I just gazed across the bridge between the two piers, and all of a sudden … on the north side of the bridge I saw the bridge starting to subside, then on the south side in the middle section I saw the bridge subsiding also. The next noticeable action was on the north side of the western section of the bridge where I saw a small “V” of light come as the middle of the bridge kept moving outwards, then the western edge of the bridge fell and I watched it until it was about a third of the way to the ground, then I turned my eyes to the eastern end of the bridge in time to hear the half girder land on the ground. The eastern pier appeared to hold for a moment, I would say about two seconds, then the pier began to fall towards the river … Later, when I arrived home, I made a sketch of the way I saw the bridge collapse, in order to show my wife.’

 

The following statement was made by a boilermaker’s assistant who had just tightened bolts on top of the bridge when it fell:

‘… I was half-way down the scaffold to touch the floor plate to go for lunch when the span I was standing in slowly started to sink down … I held on to the scaffold and it seemed like 12 seconds until the span crashed into the river. I don’t know if I was knocked over inside the box, but after the span hit the bottom I was covered in mud, blood was running down from a cut on my head and I was standing up with a scaffolding tube across my neck. I saw a fire about 15–20 feet from me. I don’t know what was on fire. All the steel was twisted. A man I don’t know was a short distance from me and was screaming for help 4 or 5 times and then I didn’t hear any more. I could see the sky though a gap in the steel above me and about 5 minutes later some men came but they couldn’t get me out until some time later. The people pulled me out with a rope … I think I am very lucky to be alive.’

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