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The Disaster

Shortly after the collapse, fire still burning VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

Shortly after the collapse, fire still burning VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

‘… the most tragic industrial accident in the history of Victoria.’
(Report of Royal Commission into the failure of West Gate Bridge, VPRS 2591/P0, unit 14)

At 11.50 am on 15 October 1970, a 367-ft (112 m) span of the West Gate Bridge, known as span 10–11, collapsed during construction. Approximately 2000 tonnes of steel and concrete came crashing down into the muddy banks of the Yarra below, taking workers and their machinery, tools and sheds with them.

Thirty-five workers lost their lives that day: many others were injured. Most victims were those working on top of the bridge at the time of the collapse. Some men were lucky enough to be on their morning break away from the site; others simply ran out of the way before the bridge fell on top of them.

The scene was one of utter devastation. Emergency services responded quickly and together with nurses, first-aid staff, and other volunteers, worked all day and into the night to search for survivors and account for the dead.

 

Rescue workers in the heart of the wreckage VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

Rescue workers in the heart of the wreckage VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

‘Rescuers worked all afternoon and far into the night, always in horrifying conditions, often in peril of death or injury themselves. A fire broke out as a result of spilled diesel oil igniting; while quickly extinguished, the fire added to the difficulties of rescue work … All that was humanly possible to save life and mitigate the suffering of the injured, was undoubtedly done.’
(Report of Royal Commission, VPRS 2591/P0, unit 14)

An expert technical committee was immediately established to investigate the scene. The following morning, amid nationwide grief and horror, then Premier Sir Henry Bolte announced the establishment of a royal commission to investigate the cause of the collapse. Its report, tabled in parliament in 1971, left no party associated with the collapse blameless and stated that:

 

 

 

Sketch of the collapse from the inquest files VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

Sketch of the collapse from the inquest files VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, unit 120

‘Error begat error … and the events which led to the disaster moved with the inevitability of a Greek Tragedy.’
(Report of Royal Commission, VPRS 2591/P0, unit 14)

The government’s involvement in the West Gate Bridge project, from its conception in the early 1960s through to its troubled construction and eventual completion in 1978 is documented across several agencies, ministerial portfolios and statutory bodies.

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