Bill Hitchings

The Royal Commission

A Royal Commission into the tragedy sat for six months. Its findings blamed the design, the construction method and the foolhardy attempts to rectify a construction failure.
Failure of design. Failure of process. Failure of duty of care.

The Royal Commission into the Failure of the West Gate Bridge, chaired by Mr Justice Barber, commenced on 28 October 1970 and concluded on 14 July 1971. The Commission completed collecting the evidence from 52 witnesses in May 1971, It had sat for 73 days - broken only for Christmas and Easter - and had listened to more than two million words of evidence.

The Commissioners took little more than a month to complete their weighty 300-page, 8000 word report, and it was released in the Victorian Parliament on 3 August 1971.

Victims

Only yesterday they’d all laughed when they felt the span move. ‘She must be having growing pains’ someone said.

On the morning of 15 October, Ian Miller walked on to the span he and the men had just recently put in place on top of the huge 155ft concrete piers on the west side of the River Yarra. His colleague Jack Hindshaw was there. They waved a greeting to each other.

Jack, 42, the resident engineer for the bridge designers, Freeman Fox and Partners, had been sent out from London. Only a few weeks before, Ian and Jack had assured the men the bridge was safe after a similar bridge at Milford Haven, Wales, had collapsed and killed four men. Now this span was giving trouble.

Heroes

John Dooty worked until he collapsed. Ambulance men brought him round and ordered him to go home. He was back within the hour.
Fellow workers refused to rest until everyone had been found

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.

Survivors

‘He toppled forward into the bowels of the hollow span and went down inside, bouncing around like a rubber ball. Not even a bone was broken.’
Some managed to ride the bridge down

There were some miraculous tales of survival which came out in the days and weeks that followed the disaster.

In those interminable seconds before the huge span plummeted 45 metres (150 feet) into the mud and waters of Melbourne’s River Yarra, a young migrant, boilermaker’s assistant, Charlie Sant, had the presence of mind to sit down on a box and await the worst. It was too late to run.

Some others alongside him rode the bridge down and, while they didn’t walk away, managed to smile through their pain as rescue workers reached them.

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