50 Years On We Remember The Tragic West Gate Bridge Disaster

Almost 50 years ago, part of the second longest bridge in Australia collapsed during construction.

Workers were milled around, chatting, working and some having their lunch break in huts beneath the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne.

It was just another normal day for the workers, but they had no idea that they would be part of Australia's worst industrial accident.

Thirty-five workers were killed on October 15, 1970.

Workers were underneath, on top and inside the 112-metre bridge span when it fell, plummeting to the ground and into the Yarra River in an explosion of dust, gas and mangled metal.

An image from the existing Public Records Office Victoria archives. Image: Public Records Office Victoria

More than 150,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day.

Many having no idea the human toll during construction of the steel box girder bridge, in which the main beams are made of girders in the shape of a hollow box. It spans 2.5 kilometres of the Yarra River, separating the city’s western suburbs from the CBD.

Construction started two years prior to the disaster.

Construction of the West Gate Bridge, 1969-70. Image: Public Record Office Victoria

Amid nationwide grief, a Royal Commission was established by then Premier Sir Henry Bolte into the cause of the collapse.

Up to 52 witnesses delivered evidence for 80 days, with the commission detailing several factors including the design of the bridge and the construction method to be at fault. These were "fully considered" by the West Gate Bridge Authority before work recommenced in 1972.

“The disaster which occurred ... and the tragedy of the 35 deaths was utterly unnecessary,” it concluded.

“That it should have been allowed to happen was inexcusable.”  

The bridge was re-opened to traffic on November 15, 1978, and the commission's conclusions widely circulated by building and design companies around the world. 

READ MORE: CCTV  Captures The Horrifying Moment The Genoa Bridge Collapsed

The negatives of these images were in 2015 handed to the State Archives by VicRoads. Image: Public Record Office Victoria

In 2015, newly-recovered photographs of the bridge construction were handed to the state archives, offering glimpses into what culminated into tragedy. It's not known whether the workers killed were pictured in the photos. 

Public Record Office Victoria also produced an online exhibition about the disaster that year. 

Featured image: Public Records Office Victoria