1995 – 25th Anniversary

25th Anniversary Speech - Jim O’Neill

Thank you all for coming today to join with us in commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse when 35 of our workmates were killed and amazingly 18 survived, although some were seriously injured. This was and remains Australia’s worst industrial accident.

My name is Jim O’Neill. I was associated with West Gate from the very early days as the Construction Organiser for the Metal Workers Union through the many years of fabrication then erection of the bridge and after the collapse I worked on the project as a Boilermaker.

A few months ago Pat Preston, Danny Gardiner, Tom Watson, John Cummings and myself all of whom worked on the bridge came together and formed a Commemorative Committee to organise the simple ceremony, and they requested that I act as the Chairman, something I am happy to do.

Now 25 years later some of the children of those killed may well ask, how did this disaster occur? Why did it happen? What caused the worst industrial accident in Australia ‘s history?

I will attempt to briefly answer this question. Firstly, there was no single cause for this disaster. There was a series of events that together led to the collapse. Each played a part, if any one of these events had been prevented it would not have happened.

Unlike the Sydney Harbour Bridge that was built over 60 years ago, a new method was used at West Gate, it was a box girder mode fabrication and erections. It was designed by leading British engineering company, Freeman Fox, and was fabricated and erected by World Services Construction, a well known company that operates in the petrochemical industries in Altona.

After the project had been underway for about one year, we read a small item in the press that a similar Box Girder Bridge at Milford Haven in Britain had sustained an accident that killed four construction workers.

The shop stewards and union officials approached management to enquire if a similar accident could occur here. We were assured that it could not as a different erection procedure was to be used and that management had a ‘Belt and Braces’ approach to safety, which meant doubling of all safety procedures. How well did we all remember the slogan of ‘Belt and Braces’ as it was used so often by management.

The Chief Engineer we dealt with was Jack Hindshaw from Freeman Fox. He informed us he had built bridges all over the world and was a recognised expert. He said he would spend 6 hours of every day up on top of the bridge with the other workers and he did not intend to risk his life. We insisted Jack Hindshaw address the workforce in company time which he did and he answered many questions, again repeating the ‘Belt and Braces’ approach. On these assurances work continued.

The steel span on piers 10 to 11 was assembled on the ground and jacked up into position by powerful hydraulic jacks. The two sections which weighed over 2,000 tons did not line up correctly as one of the sections had a significant bulge. This bulge was eventually responsible for the collapse but we didn’t know this at the time.

In an effort to remove this bulge many about 10 blocks of concrete weighing 8 tonnes each were placed on the span. This reduced the bulge but did not get rid of it. The strain this caused in the steelwork became another factor in the collapse.

On the fateful day, Thursday 15 October 1970, Jack Hindshaw, the bridge building expert, instructed Barney Butters, a Boilermaker, and his trades assistant, Des Gibbson, to remove a number of bolts in an attempt to eliminate the bulge. This action was without any consultation with the unions, the safety committee or the workforce. If we had known we would never have agreed to this procedure.

Instead of loosening these high tensile bolts and then removing them in the normal manner, powerful impact wrenches were used to tighten the bolts till they snapped. This was another short cut we didn’t know about and certainly not a ‘Belt and Braces’ procedure.

When these bolts had been removed Jack Hindshaw realised something was wrong as the steel was turning blue, the rust was spitting off and there was a groaning noise. He phoned World Services office on the ground and explained the situation. They directed him to immediately replace the bolts. But the bolts had all been broken in their removal, none were available.

At this stage there was still plenty of time to clear the bridge; it could have been evacuated as a priority. But sadly it was not done.

Instead Barney Butters and his trades assistant were sent to the store on top of the bridge to get more bolts, but it was too late. With a loud bang the span broke and came down. The disaster happened. Thirty-five of our workmates including the crew removing the bolts were killed in a tangled mess of steel at 11:50 am, 15 October, 1970.

All this information came out at the Royal Commission that was held about one year later to determine what caused the collapse. We also learned that while Jack Hindshaw had built bridges all over the world for Freeman Fox, they had all been concrete bridges. This was the first steel bridge he had worked on.

So much for assurances from so-called experts. This was a mistake we all made to our sorrow. The lesson is, workers should never accept the word of experts alone. It is more reliable to rely on their collective knowledge and experience.

If proper procedures had been followed and the workforce consulted this tragedy would not have happened. We, the trade unions, must accept some of the responsibility for not being more vigilant. We should have had mechanisms in place at the work place to ensure proper procedures were followed.

Still, as they say in the classics, it’s easy to be wise after the event. We must now make certain that on other construction and building sites safety is paramount. As every construction worker has the right to return home to his family each day, after work, in one piece, fit and well, not another statistic in a hospital, or even worse, in the morgue.

Well, briefly, that’s how it happened. I hope this did not cause too much pain or bring back bad memories or cause further sorrow to the families and the survivors here today. But we believed that 25 years on, this story warranted being retold.

On behalf of the Commemorative Committee, again, thank you all for coming and after other parts of the ceremony are concluded I hope you will remain behind and join with us in some refreshments.