The West Gate Bridge disaster

I walk north from Newport, up Douglas Parade towards the West Gate Freeway. I am heading towards the West Gate Bridge, one of Melbourne’s most beautiful and impressive landmarks, and the essential conduit for traffic over the Yarra, linking the two sides of the city. It’s also the site of Melbourne’s worst industrial disaster.

To my right, huge container vessels escorted by tugs make their way into the mouth of the Yarra towards Webb Dock, where red giraffe-cranes wait to load and unload them. I pass the Newport Power Station, a familiar landmark these days, but the subject of a bitter environmental dispute in the 1970s.

Newport Power Station

To my left are the oil terminals of Caltex and Shell. Every few moments a loaded truck rumbles out of the gates and heads up Douglas Parade.  Surrounded by ships, pylons, oil drums and fuel trucks, I am in one of the industrial hearts of Melbourne, from which oil, gas and power are pumped out through steel veins all over the city.

Close by is the Newport Substation, which was built in 1915 to supply electricity to the railways. It was closed in 1969 and over the following 27 years fell into complete neglect and decay. A dedicated group of locals took on the task of restoration in the 1990s, and after a 15-year project, the Substation was reopened as an arts centre. Today the Substation hosts many exhibitions, concerts, arts markets and the like. A giant work by the wonderful artist Baby Guerrilla adorns the north wall.

substation

Heading north up Douglas Parade, in a few minutes I reach the West Gate Bridge. Two thoughts are foremost in my mind as I approach: how beautiful, and how tragic.

View of the West Gate Bridge with powerlines

The disaster happened at 11.50 on the morning of 15 October 1970. During the construction, a span of the bridge collapsed and 2000 tons of metal and concrete plummeted into the mud and the river, with a crash that could be heard several miles away. The number of dead was 35 – among them riggers, boilermakers, ironworkers and engineers. Some of the men killed were in huts directly below the collapse,on their lunch break. Others were working on the bridge when it fell away beneath them.

Disaster report front page of the Sun newspaper

The names of the dead are recorded on a plaque on the base of one of the bridge supports, on the western bank of the Yarra, where the bridge crosses Douglas Parade. There are also 35 concrete blocks in a row, each block commemorating one of the dead. Survivors and relatives meet here on the morning of 15 October every year to remember those they lost.

West Gate Bridge disaster memorial

A Royal Commission into the disaster found that it was caused by poor design, a faulty construction method and disastrous errors on site. A comprehensive account of what went wrong, and powerful stories about those who lost their lives and the survivors, can be found on the West Gate Bridge memorial website, and in Bill Hitchings’ book, West Gate. Here’s an excerpt I’ve borrowed from the website:

“The rescue teams found 32 bodies that day. Men like Jouzaf Ozelis, 23, of North Altona, who was planning to marry 19-year-old Regina Buzinkas; Cyril Carmichael, 19, of North Fitzroy, who was about to announce his engagement to Glenys Fone; George Tsehilios, 32, who had sold his blacksmith shop in Greece to come to Australia and had saved for eight years to buy a home in Altona for his wife and two sons.”

I pause in the small memorial park directly below the bridge. There’s a regular flow of joggers and cyclists past the spot. It’s fairly quiet, aside from the rumble of trucks, and the hum and whoosh of traffic overhead. Knowledge of the disaster changes the way you feel about the place.  There’s a sombre feeling here. I try to imagine the noise, the shouts, the falling men, the devastation. But it’s impossible to picture a disaster like that. I can imagine the men leaving home that morning, waving goodbye to their families; sitting at lunch having a sandwich and a friendly argument about the footy; I can imagine classrooms and offices suddenly silent as everyone hears the distant explosion, stops what they are doing and looks towards the bridge. But standing here, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to experience it.

Since the West Gate bridge disaster, largely due to campaigning by trade unions, workplace safety is taken more seriously, but we still hear regularly of people killed or injured in their workplaces. There have been no other industrial disasters on the scale of the West Gate Bridge. But there have been deaths during the construction of many buildings around the city. Only last year, three people were killed walking past a Grocon construction site when a wall collapsed on them. There was widespread media coverage of that accident, but many fatalities are hardly reported. Nearly every skyscraper, every bridge, every factory must be haunted by its unnamed dead. They are part of the psychogeography of the city, even those who have no memorials.

Report of the Royal Commission into the failure of the West Gate Bridge.

If you remember the West Gate Bridge collapse, or would like to share a story about the bridge, please leave a comment or email me.

Map of this walk

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