Anger undimmed over Melbourne's West Gate Bridge tragedy

15 October 2010

FORTY years after Melbourne's West Gate Bridge disaster, Tommy Watson's anger has scarcely diminished.

"I think the older I get, the harder it gets," he says, as he sits in the shadow of the bridge.

Pat Preston, another survivor of that dreadful day, nods. "I don't disagree," he says. "It's not only the mates you remember, it's what happened and how it happened. You remember the mates, the people you went to work with, who you had a beer with, and you think about their families."

Watson and Preston were working on the Melbourne bridge on the day of Australia's worst industrial accident 40 years ago today. At 11.50am a 112m span collapsed and plunged 45m to the bog of the Stony Creek Backwash below, killing 35 men.

Eighteen men suffered life-changing injuries. A survivor, Des Gibson, would die from his fourth heart attack after three years of nightmares, at the age of 32.

Before the bridge was completed, another worker would fall to his death.

"Error begat error," the royal commission into the disaster concluded.
"Events moved with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy."

Watson was on the water's edge when he heard the crack. "It was 10 to 12, it was Thursday, we had just got the last load of equipment we were going to send up after lunch and we were walking towards the bridge for lunch," he says.

"It seemed like minutes, hearing the crack and seeing it come down, but it was really only seconds. What went through my mind was the tragedy. I knew there would be deaths; I knew there would be people seriously injured. I expected to see a war zone and when I got there that's exactly what it was."

Preston was by the roadside, waiting for a couple of his mates to come down in the lift. He was going to run them up to the pub.

"I was looking up. I seen (engineer) Ian Miller, the carpenter Ross Bigmore and (survivor) Paddy Hanaphy up on the walkway to the lift," he says.

Paddy had shouted down to me and got into the lift and then there was a crack. It was like a series of cracks. I looked up and I seen it coming down.

"It was like slow motion, but it wasn't. It was the way your mind sort of registered it. I ran behind the crane, thinking that would save me.

"I seen a body coming straight down towards me and that was Ian Miller. He landed within two metres of me. To the left, I seen material coming off, but also another person coming off and landing in the swamp. That was the young carpenter."

The royal commission found that the "particular action which precipitated the collapse of span 10-11 was the removal of a number of bolts from a transverse splice in the upper flange plating near to mid-span". They had been removed in an attempt to straighten out a buckle in one of the eight panels of the upper flange.

Two halves of the span had not lined up, seven eight-tonne concrete blocks were placed in the mid-span to try to rectify it, then a buckle developed, and about 30 bolts were removed to relieve the stress and the structure collapsed.

Lives changed in an instant. Young mother of four Doris Gerada, whose husband, Victor, an ironworker on the bridge, had told her he had felt it move, stood looking at the bodies of working men, their faces covered by coats. She looked at their boots, didn't see her husband's, then saw the sleeve of his jumper on a stretcher.

"I became like a stone," she said yesterday, at the launch of a new oral history and exhibition by Public Records Office Victoria at the Old Treasury Building. "I couldn't move; I couldn't talk."

Children grew up without fathers. Joe Gerada, who was seven in 1970, says he missed "a father cheering on the sidelines". Rita Gerada, who was two and "daddy's girl", felt it deeply. For a long time after her father's death, she would talk to his photograph.

Tommy Watson, who attended eight funerals in one day after the disaster, became a leading official of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.

He says that when he speaks at the memorial service under the bridge today he will remember the way workers and widows were treated and the falsely confident assurances they were given, even though a similar bridge, at Milford Haven in Wales, had collapsed just four months earlier, killing four workers.

"The lies that were told, the way we were treated by engineers and by authority -- I think it was disgraceful," he says.

Preston nods again. "I guess it was attending the funerals," he says. "Being alongside people that had lost their loved ones, you make a promise to yourself that if you can prevent it happening again you will prevent it happening again."