As news of the crash hit Melbourne the Government declared a disaster plan and all available firemen, ambulance officers and policemen were called in. The police threw a cordon around the disaster area, breaking it only for the constant stream of ambulances, nurse, doctors, priests, Salvation army workers, Boy Scouts and men among the passers-by who converged on the broken bridge to do what they could.
John Laino, who had been digging since he came down with the bridge, helped identify the dead and the unconscious injured.
Bill Snowden of Geelong had got out from under just in time, but had gone back to dig out a mate and had sat with him until the ambulances came. He tried politely to shrug off the rescue workers’ help, although weak and caked in oil and mud.
John Dooty, 20, the ‘long haired larrikin’ from Ascot Vale, refused to stop when the rescuers moved in. He carried the injured and dead and dug in the mud for the missing until he collapsed with exhaustion. Ambulance men brought him round and ordered him to go home. He was back within an hour.
The nearby ACI factory threw its canteen open for food, and the Port Emergency Service and others like the Salvation Army workers helped to clean off the injured and set up hot-drink areas. Gradually the experts pieced together some sort of order out of the massive and bloody chaos, and the men reluctantly wandered off to the arms of family and friends waiting beyond the cordon.
That night rescue workers used arc lamps to try to find more bodies, and at dawn fresh crews took over from them. Cranes and trucks and bulldozers were brought in and men with oxy-acetyline guns began the long job of cutting through the twisted span to look for more bodies.
On the following morning, October 16, Sir Henry Bolte (Premier of Victoria) announced that a Royal Commission would be set up immediately to look into the cause of the disaster. The Prime Minister, Mr John Gorton, said: ‘I am sure the whole of Australia is shocked and saddened by the serious accident at West Gate Bridge. Please extend my deepest sympathy to all those families to whom this tragic event has brought such grief.’
Extract from ‘West Gate’ by Bill Hitchings