Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge across the Yarra River links the city to the suburbs and leads out to an industrial zone and the port of Geelong.
Construction began in 1968 and appeared to progress well for the next two years. But in October 1970, while two half girders on the west side were being connected, a camber difference between them was noticed. Ten eight-ton concrete cubes were placed on the northern span, to level them out. It was noted that a buckle had developed around one of the joints as a result, but work still continued. On October 14 written instructions were given to straighten the buckle forthwith; at 08.30 the following morning this was started.
At 11.50 a 112 m (367 ft) section suddenly collapsed, bringing 2,000 tons of concrete and steel crashing down onto the riverbank and into the water below. Some workers were taking a break beneath the bridge while others were working on the girder itself. The collapse killed 35 men and the force of the impact caused an explosion that shook all the surrounding buildings and splattered them with flying mud. The noise could be heard for miles. To add to the havoc, some spilt diesel oil caught fire, hampering rescue attempts.
A Royal Commission set up to investigate the disaster heard evidence from 52 witnesses. Its report of August 1971 left none of the parties involved in the project entirely free of blame. Error had been piled upon error and ‘the events which led to the disaster moved with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy’. What became abundantly clear was that not only was the construction site unsafe, but the bridge also would have been unsafe upon completion? The West Gate Bridge collapse was ‘the most tragic industrial accident in the history of Victoria’.
When: October 15 1970
Where: Varra River, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Death toll: 35 construction workers were killed and there were numerous injuries.
You should know: In June 1970 part of the Milford Haven Bridge in wales collapsed during construction, resulting in the strengthening of the steel spans in the new West Gate Bridge build. Work resumed in 1972, and was completed in 1978. In 2007, following the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis, a project was proposed to identify structural weaknesses in West Gate Bridge, as it was carrying far heavier loads than it was designed to bear. The strengthening project should be completed in 2011.