Disaster at West Gate

15 October 2004
This was written on the 34th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse which killed 35 workers and seriously injuring 17 in what is still Australia's worst industrial accident on October 15, 1970.

A view from ground level of the collapsed bridge
A view from ground level of the collapsed bridge

As hundreds of people gathered at the base of the bridge to remember those who had lost their lives, Melbourne's weather matched the mood - the sunlight faded, the wind picked up and then a few drops of rain were followed by hail. A number of speakers addressed the gathered crowd - a worker who survived the accident, members of the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee, WorkSafe and the Major Projects Minister, Peter Batchelor. A West Gate worker read a poem he'd written; John Cummins, President of the CFMEU and a past West Gate worker, spoke of the lessons the union learnt that day: 'Only an organised workplace can be a safe workplace - you can't leave safety to others. And yet,' he observed, 'we now have a re-elected John Howard who has a self-professed priority to lessen the role of unions, in particular the CFMEU.'

(Download a copy of John Cummins' speech at the top right hand side of this page)

Mr Geoff Thomas, Director of WorkSafe's Construction and Utilities Program, said 'As the subsequent Royal Commission found, the tragedy of the 35 deaths was utterly unnecessary (and) inexcusable. There was no sudden onslaught of natural forces, no unexpected failure of new or untested material.' He said that while many of the practices common in the 70's no longer occur, and the construction industry has come a long way, there are still serious issues of safety that the Authority comes across every single day. 'There have been eight Victorian workers killed in construction this year, 27 across all industries - too many.'

The Minister spoke of some of those left behind: Monica O'Brien, whose son Dennis had died after only two weeks on the job; Pat Preston, a survivor, who then made it his life's work to improve health and safety in the construction industry; others who had formed the West Gate Memorial Committee. Mr Batchelor made a pledge to those workers who had lost their lives: the State government would continue to make workplaces safe for everyone ... they would not forget.

Up until this year, the memorial ceremony was held beneath the Memorial Plaque, erected and paid for by the West Gate workers, but today the State Government's commitment one year ago to establish a Park became a reality. Mr Batchelor cut the ribbon to officially open the West Gate Memorial Park, a feature of which are 35 pillars; one for each of the workers who lost their lives.

'Heroes' (from a new WorkSafe leaflet)

'People like Pat Preston have devoted their working lives to the cause of improving OHS standards. Pat was working as a crane driver on the West Gate at the base of span 10-11 (the one that collapsed) on that fateful day in 1970. He was one of the first on the scene to help rescue his mates. Now, as manager of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, Pat's vocation is ensuring future generations don't have to learn a safety culture the hard way, and that families don't have to endure the lasting pain from their loved one not returning home from work. (Pat's story can be downloaded at the top right hand side of this page)

Another worker on the bridge was Noel Baker who was a rigger on the east side of the bridge. Noel started work on the bridge in 1969 and after the collapse returned to work on the bridge in 1972. Noel was the safety representative for the riggers and was also a member of the Rescue Squad formed to carry out rescues of injured workers. Now as an inspector for WorkSafe Victoria, Noel's working life is devoted to ensuring another 'West Gate' never happens again - that workers never have to rescue their mates from serious accidents or incidents.

More Information

The Public Records Office of Victoria website: Disaster at West Gate with an account of what happened, eyewitness accounts, and a gallery of pictures.

WorkSafe Victoria has a Case Study for Engineering Students on the lessons of the collapse of the West Gate Bridge. (21 page pdf file - download at the top right hand side of this page) 

Westgate Bridge Memorial site - dedicated to the 35 working men who went to work on the 15th October, 1970 and never came home, to those who were injured, and to their brave comrades and the rescue crews who worked tirelessly that terrible day to assist and recover them. It is also dedicated to the six workers who lost their lives in the Spotswood Sewer Disaster on 12th April 1895.

Last updated May 2015

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