12 March 1991 - Current
WEST GATE BRIDGE TRAGEDY COMMEMORATION
15 October 2020
Mr GEPP (Northern Victoria) (11:34): The West Gate Bridge spans the 2.5 kilometres of the Yarra River that separates Melbourne’s western suburbs from the CBD. It is one of Australia’s biggest cable-stayed girder bridges and is used by 160 000 vehicles each day. With its distinctive curving shape the West Gate is instantly recognisable as one of the city’s iconic structures. Sadly it is also the monument to Australia’s worst industrial accident disaster still to this day. Many of us in this chamber would normally be at the foot of the bridge at the memorial service that is held each year at this time, and it saddens all of us that we cannot be there today to pay our respects to the workers who lost their lives that day and their families. But importantly we also pay our respects to their unions—their unions who from that day to this have never given up the fight for workplace safety, have never given up the fight and never will give up the fight for the right for each and every worker in this state and in this country to go home at the end of their working day, regardless of their occupation, regardless of their circumstances.
Two years into construction of the bridge at 11.50 am on 15 October 1970, the 112-metre span between piers 10 and 11 collapsed and fell 50 metres to the ground and water below; 2000 tonnes of concrete and steel and more than 50 men plunged into the Yarra River with an explosion of gas, dust and mangled metal that shook buildings hundreds of metres away, as we have just heard; and 35 workers were tragically killed and 18 were injured. Some of those who perished were on their lunch break beneath the structure in workers huts, and they were crushed by the falling span. Many of the workers were migrants, part of the postwar wave from Europe that reshaped the city. The deaths left 28 widows and 88 children without fathers. Only a few weeks before the disaster, workers were assured the bridge was safe after a similar bridge in Wales, Milford Haven, had collapsed and killed four men.
The rescue teams on that day found 32 bodies: men such as Jouzaf Ozelis, 23, of North Altona, who was planning to marry 19-year-old Regina Buzinkas a few weeks later; Cyril Carmichael, 19, of North Fitzroy, who was about to announce his engagement to Glenys Fone; George Tsehilios, 32, who had sold his blacksmith shop in Greece to come to Australia and had saved for eight years to buy a home in Altona with his wife and two sons; Ross Bigmore, 22, of Reservoir, a carpenter who was to be married to Maureen Jones on Melbourne Cup Day, 3 November of that year, just three weeks later; Tony Falzon, a carpenter who had arrived from Malta seven years earlier; and foreman Charles Lund, 41, who had already packed his bags to leave the bridge and take his wife and seven children up to Queensland where he would work on the Mackay bridge and be near his mother. Irene Woods rushed from her job to be with her four children when she learned her husband, Pat, 32, had been killed, and Mrs Butters of east Coburg had to wait eight days for the body of her husband, Bernard, 49, to float to the surface after the crumpled scaffolding was moved. She said afterwards:
I knew it was hopeless after the first night … It was only a matter of time.
And there were many, many others: Ian Miller, Jack Hindshaw, Bill Harburn, Bob West, Jack Grist, Fred Upsdell, Victor Gerada and the others.
The tragic disaster had a profound effect on Melbourne and the construction industry. As the unions rallied around the families of those lost and offered comfort and support to traumatised survivors, the need for a modern workplace occupational health and safety regime became startlingly evident, because it was only eight years prior to that that the King Street Bridge collapsed. But we did not see any action after that, and it would have to wait until 1982 before work safety really mattered in the halls of this place and we got subsequent legislation.
As Ms Stitt said earlier, WorkSafe reports over the recent time tell us that to December 2019, 234 Victorians have lost their lives, and more have lost their lives this year.
We heard the tragic story earlier this week of the collapse of a construction site in Perth that took the life of a young apprentice—a life extinguished, all over health and safety, that could and should have been avoided. We owe it to the West Gate 35 on this, the 50th anniversary of their tragic and senseless passing, to commit ourselves to improved workplace safety.
I just want to say, as a father of a construction worker, to the families that sacrificed so much 50 years ago so that we today have a little bit more comfort that there are laws in this place, there is much more focus and emphasis on workplace safety and I can have a little bit more surety that each day my son will come home from work.