12 March 1991 - Current
WEST GATE BRIDGE TRAGEDY COMMEMORATION
15 October 2020
Ms LOVELL (Northern Victoria) (11:28): I also rise to speak on the motion. 11.50 am on 15 October 1970 is one of those moments in time that is etched in my mind. I was a student at the Newport West Primary School, when suddenly we heard a roar followed by an explosion, and the room vibrated. Items in the room moved, and empty milk bottles rattled like a xylophone in their metal crate. There was a moment of stunned silence and then lots of excitement as we thought we had just experienced a minor earthquake. That excitement was short lived, as shortly after an announcement came over the PA for any child who had a parent working on the bridge to go to the principal’s office. There were several in my class. A message was conveyed to our teacher who informed the rest of the class that there had been an accident, and we were asked if any of us also felt the need to go home.
On 14 October 1970, workers had felt the span of the bridge between piers 10 and 11 on the western side move. Early on the 15th, a plan was being developed to address a problem.
The two girders approaching each other between pier 10 and pier 11 were not going to meet; one was 11 centimetres higher than the other. So 10 large concrete blocks weighing 8 tonnes each were loaded onto the bridge, 16 bolts were loosened and from there it all went wrong until that fatal moment at 11.50 am, when the workers heard the pinging of flakes of rust peeling from the weathered steel and noticed parts of the metal turning blue. At that moment the span broke its back and the 2000-tonne structure plummeted into the mud and the water of the Yarra River below.
The explosion we had heard in our classroom was from the 1900 litres of diesel that had been loaded onto the span. The inferno it created would kill many of the men, hamper the rescue and shatter windows in nearby buildings. Sixty-eight men were working on or around the span of the bridge that day; 35 of them would lose their lives, 18 were seriously injured and the remainder have lived with the horror of that day ever since. Eleven of the men killed had gathered in the workers huts below the span for their lunchbreak. Those who were not killed or injured bravely stayed on, putting aside their personal torment to search for their workmates.
The scene was chaotic, and there was confusion at all levels. My aunt lived not far from the bridge, on River Street, Newport, and her neighbours were an Italian family that spoke little English. The police arrived at their door and were trying to advise them that their son had been killed in the collapse when their son walked up the path behind them and asked the police if he could help them. Fortunately, it was an error and he was one of the workers who did return home that day.
The horror of the day shocked not only Melbourne but an entire nation. I pay tribute to Sir Henry Bolte, the Premier of the day, who without hesitation immediately commissioned a royal commission that led the way for revolutionary change in workplace safety in this state.
In members statements this morning members spoke of the memorial park and plaque. The very first name on that plaque is Royvin Barbuto, boilermaker. The Barbuto family lived just around the corner from my family. They were all well known to us. Roy was only 25. His wife, Cheryl, was only about 19 or 20 at the time. They had a beautiful baby boy named Stephen. I can remember Cheryl and my parents writing out the death and funeral notices. Even as a child I was so terribly saddened at the impact the loss of Roy—a husband, father, son and brother—was having on the entire Barbuto family. Many years later I saw a photo in the Age of Stephen, now a grown man with his own children, Jake and Alyvia, at the memorial, and once again I mourned for a son too young to remember his father and for grandchildren who never knew the joy of their grandfather’s love.
What is not widely known or acknowledged is that the collapse actually claimed the lives of 36 men. Des Gibson was 29 when the bridge collapsed. He endured three years of nightmares and survived three heart attacks before his fourth heart attack claimed his life in August 1973, aged 32. I extend my sincere condolences to the families and friends of Des and to the families and friends of the 35 men so tragically lost in this horrific workplace accident. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the construction workers who stayed on to help with the search and the emergency services workers who also participated in the search-and-rescue operation. I also pay tribute to the survivors, who have led the way to establish workplace safety laws in this state. It is the hope of every member of this chamber that we will never see another disaster of this scale or the death of any worker in this state.