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From the Archives, 1970: The West Gate Bridge collapses

Nobody knows how many men still lie under the tangled mess of concrete and rubble.

Two bodies can be seen among the wreckage and at least 12 and possibly 17 are unaccounted for. Eighteen men are injured, eight of them seriously.

Sixty rescue workers, using heavy cranes, oxyacetylene torches, shovels and crowbars worked under a flood of lights until 11.30 last night searching for the missing men.

The search will resume at first light.

The Premier (Sir Henry Bolte) said late yesterday that at Royal Commission would investigate the disaster “without loss of time”.

Sixty-eight men were working on a 384 ft. long section of Melbourne’s new $42 million bridge yesterday when disaster struck at 11.50 am.

The 2000-ton span collapsed without warning, crashing on to the western Yarra bank.

Many of the victims rode to their death on the 384 ft. section which fell from a height of 155 feet. Most were working inside a hollow tunnel inside the falling span.

Others were killed inside huts which the plummeting bridge crushed into the mud.

The cause of the collapse is still unknown.

Workers stand on the fallen span of the West Gate bridge after its October, 1970 collapse.

Workers stand on the fallen span of the West Gate bridge after its October, 1970 collapse.
Credit:The Age Archives

“We know very little indeed,” the chairman of the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority (Mr Oscar Meyer), said last night

Mr Meyer was adamant that the pylon did not collapse first. The collapse of the span had uprooted the pylon, its flexible joint at the base.

Mr Meyer said work could continue on the project which would be set back at least five months.

However, last night three unions put black bans on the project.

Besides the Royal Commission, independent inquiries will be held by the Lower Yarra Crossing Authority and the building unions.

Two experts from Freeman Fox and Partners, consulting engineers, joint-designers of the bridge, are leaving London by air for Melbourne today.

Freeman Fox and Partners were joint-designers of a bridge of similar design in Wales which partly collapsed on June 9, killing four men.

Chaos, horror

Eye-witnesses told of how the bridge collapsed with a roar into clouds of dust and smoke and of the scenes of chaos and horror that followed.

A photograph taken from the water shows the area that is now missing from the bridge after the span crash.

A photograph taken from the water shows the area that is now missing from the bridge after the span crash.Credit:The Age Archives

“I looked out of the window and saw the bridge floating through the air like a feather,” said Mr Rex Jennings, 48, who works in an office 200 yards from the bridge.

Mr Laurie Garcia, 45, of Moorabbin, saw the bridge split in the centre then crumble in a V shape towards the ground, crushing a huge pylon beneath it.

An Age reporter who flew over the site 45 minutes later said it looked as if a child had a tantrum with his construction set and bashed it down.

One of Australia’s most prominent bridge engineers was killed. He was Mr Ian Miller, 39, of Balwyn, the head project engineer of the John Holland construction group. He was married with young children.

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The engineering general manager of the group (Mr Bryan Barmby) was at the site and was speaking with Mr Miller minutes before he died.

Mr Barmby said: “I remember speaking to him then I walked away. I turned around and saw the collapse.

“It terrified me. I just stood there crying.”

The head engineer for the part designers of the bridge, Freeman and Fox, Mr Jack Henshaw, 43, who came to Australia from Britain to work on the project, died in the Footscray and District Hospital early today.

As rescuers worked under lights last night to free bodies trapped under wreckage near the base of one of the pylons, anguished relatives waited for news outside a nearby police communications van.

Rescue workers work their way through the twisted metal.

Rescue workers work their way through the twisted metal.Credit:The Age Archives

At 9.30 last night 23-year-old Peter Fitzsimmons, of Burwood, came looking for his young brother, Bernard.

He found his way to the police communications centre where he managed to say his brother’s name.

The verdict: your brother is listed as missing.

As he walked from the police communications van, and past the wreckage he said: “He’s dead, he’s dead. I just know it.”

Seven workmen in an elevator on one of the pylons were killed when the bridge caved in.

They were going to the ground for lunch. As the lift touched the ground the bridge caved in.

One man managed to get out of the lift but his mates died.

Aerial shot of the collapse of the West Gate Bridge in October 1970.

Aerial shot of the collapse of the West Gate Bridge in October 1970.

The men who fell to their death inside the tube-like cavity within the bridge were doing reinforcement work as a precaution against the bridge collapsing.

At least three men in a first aid shed beneath the bridge were killed when tons of twisted metal crushed the tin shed.

As the bridge collapsed fire broke out in a makeshift tearoom exploding oxyacetylene bottles.

As the oxyacetylene exploded it ripped holes in the collapsed superstructure.

Father Leo Curran, from the Newport Roman Catholic parish, was driving in a side street less than 100 yards from the bridge when he saw it collapse.

Fr. Curran clambered on to the steelwork as the men were frantically trying to save their mates.

“I gave general absolution, then I gave it to individuals,” he said.

“There was no time for confessions… no details like that.”

Four huge mobile cranes from surrounding building projects were sent in and used in rescue operations, prying loose twisted lumps of metal, broken cranes and pieces of scaffolding.

Mr Ed. Halsall, 33, a rigger of Alton West, overs his life to being literally blown away by the force of air created by the plunging metal and concrete.

“I was under the bridge when I heard it coming down so I ran,” he said.

“I knew I couldn’t make it then something picked me up and threw me on my side down the road.”

At least 18 ambulances including some from the Mornington Peninsula ferried the dead and injured to hospital.

Rescuers in small boats helped to pull men from the wreckage and Port Emergency Services and police divers went into the water looking for victims.

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The Queen last night sent the following message to the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck:

“My husband and I have learnt with great distress of the tragic accident at West Gate Bridge.

“Please convey our deep sympathies to the injured and to the relatives of those who have lost their lives.”

Melbourne’s hospitals were scenes of heartbreak yesterday as relatives of the West Gate disaster victims arrived looking for their loved ones.

“My husband has not been heard of,” said a Kensington woman waiting at the Footscray and District Hospital.

“I don’t know I he’s dead or alive. He’s not here and he’s not at the other hospitals. I don’t know what to do.”

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