West Gate Bridge 1970

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'West Gate Bridge 1970 - My Incidental Encounters'

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On 15th October 1970 a span of West Gate Bridge being built across Melbourne’s lower Yarra River collapsed while the bridge was under construction.

Thirty five men were killed, making it the worst industrial accident in Victoria’s history.

In 1970 I was 19-20 years old, in my second year studying Civil Engineering at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Being a keen photographer, I made many visits to major transport projects that were happening around Melbourne and photographed progress. One of these projects was the West Gate Bridge. I couldn’t afford colour film, so it was black and white negative film: I would make my own prints in the darkroom at home, but not of every image, of course.

Many of the images here I have not actually seen in ‘positive’ until 2020, 50 years after I took them.

The image captions refer to 'Pier' (column) numbers and Span numbers, between piers. Piers 1 to 12 are on the west side; Piers 13 to 27 are on the east side; Span 12-13 is across the river. Spans between the west abutment and Pier 10, and also between Pier 15 and the east abutment, are the concrete approach spans. The five central spans between Pier 10 and Pier 15 are the main steel bridge spans - one of which collapsed and all of which were the concern of the post-collapse Royal Commission.

Except for the two images taken on 15th October 1970, courtesy of the Public Record Office Victoria, all images are © copyright Robert Morgan

(i) 18th March 1970

The eastern concrete approach spans being built, viewed from near Todd Road.

View from the eastern viewing point to the bridge piers on the west side of the river. Pier 12 is on the left. Next, Piers 11 and 10 can be seen with their temporary towers, to be used to jack the first steel span up.

Half width sections of steel box girder being assembled near Lorimer Street, Fishermans Bend.

Engineering students being engineering students. Joe Corda, Peter Brilliant and Russell Murphy do their best to assist construction of the eastern approach spans.

Looking west from near Pier 22. The launching truss for assembling the eastern concrete approach spans is in the foreground. The two halves of the first steel Span 14-15 have been positioned on top of their piers in the middle distance.

(ii) 28th August 1970

View from the eastern viewing point. Span 10-11 which collapsed in October can be seen in its two halves: the north half up on the piers and the south half jacked up to near full height, ready to be rolled across.

The Williamstown Ferry with the eastern spans of West Gate Bridge in the background.

The first steel span on the east side (Span 14-15), with Span 13-14 being cantilevered out.

Looking east from the lift walkway at Pier 10. On the right is the outer side of the northern half of Span 10-11, with two cantilevers for the full width of the roadway in the foreground.

Looking west on Span 10-11, with the west end of the southern half on the left. The complex metal frame on the right is the concrete section launching truss. The Williamstown Road interchange is above the fuel storage tanks (middle distance).

Above, left: Pier 10. The launching truss, used to raise prefabricated concrete box sections for the final span of the concrete approach, is behind the pier. The two halves of steel Span 10-11 can be seen. The lift is on the right. When Span 10-11 collapsed, it miraculously missed two huts hard up against the pier, but other huts with men inside them were crushed.

Looking east on Span 10-11. The crane is on the southern half, which has just been jacked up from ground level and will, over the next couple of days, be rolled towards the northern half (that I’m standing on). The undulating upper edges of both halves are evident. During the collapse, the crane (derrick) tore free and ended up mid-span (see images on 15th October 1970, below).

The Lower Yarra Freeway (later West Gate Freeway) under construction. Looking east from the Wembley Avenue footbridge towards Williamstown Road and West Gate Bridge.

Looking towards the temporary end of the concrete section in the launching truss, being built between Piers 9 and 10.

Looking out from the end of the concrete section, half way between Piers 9 and 10. In the distance in the middle is the northern half of Span 10-11.

(iii) 15th October 1970

At about 11.50 am on Thursday 15th October 1970, Span 10-11 of West Gate Bridge, near the west side of the Yarra River buckled mid-span, then collapsed, knocking down Pier 11 as it fell. 35 men died as a result.

A Royal Commission was held into the collapse. A copy of the Royal Commission report can be found on the West Gate Bridge Memorial website, westgatebridge.org

These two images are courtesy of the Public Record Office Victoria

Image references: Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 24/P3 Inquest Deposition Files, Unit 120.

Fire breaks out on top of Span 10-11, immediately after the collapse.

Looking east, showing the devastation on the fallen span, including the dislodged crane.

(iv) 29th October 1970

View from the eastern viewing point. Span 10-11 has collapsed, knocking over Pier 11.

Looking west along the Lower Yarra Freeway from the Graham Street interchange bridge.

Looking down onto the fallen span from the top of Pier 10,

The west end of the fallen span, with Pier 10 on the left.

The fallen span, with Pier 12 in the distance.

All images are © copyright Robert Morgan

The fallen span beside Stony Creek, with Pier 12 on the left.

Work on the western concrete approach spans (29th October 1970):

The outside of the concrete box girder spine, past Stony Creek. Pier 9 is in the foreground.

Concrete cantilevers being delivered on-site, on the western approach spans.

Installing a precast concrete deck slab between the cantilevers (looking north).

Preparing for the final tensioning of cables in the concrete spans, on top of Pier 10.

(v) Other Photographs

By 2nd July 1971 the concrete approach spans were effectively completed. Work on the steel spans was at a standstill.

The Hong Kong-registered ship Ninghai travels down the Yarra past the West Gate works. Taken from on top of Span 10-11, 28th August 1970.

Looking down at Pier 10 from the concrete section's launching truss, 28th August 1970.

Eastern steel Span 14-15 (centre). By the time of the collapse on the west side, Span 13-14 had been cantilevered out to a temporary support, 29th October 1970.

A photo from a similar position, but 2-1/2 years later. After the Royal Commission findings this section had to be completely strengthened and rebuilt, 25th January 1973.

Looking down at the temporary supports under Span 14-15 (east side) from below the steel superstructure, 22 October 1974.

Looking west along the Lower Yarra Freeway from west of Williamstown Road. Traffic on this freeway was very light for seven years, till 15th November 1978 when West Gate Bridge opened. 25th August 1971.

Looking west on the Lower Yarra Freeway towards Millers Road, 25th August 1971. MPH exit speed, down-pointing arrows, right-side lane drop - things have changed since then.

Looking west on the Lower Yarra Freeway (later West Gate Freeway) from the Rosala Avenue footbridge (west of Millers Road), 25th August 1971.

View from the eastern viewing point. Pier 11 (centre) has been rebuilt and superstructure erection is about to start from Pier 12, 25th January 1973.

Steel superstructure construction, out from Pier 12, 20th September 1975.

West Gate Bridge from Westgate Park at Fishermans Bend, 13 June 2005.

(vi) 15th October 2020

On the 50th anniversary of the collapse of Span 10-11, Melbourne was in Stage 4 COVID-19 virus lockdown and all remembrance events were cancelled. By chance, I had work that week in Clayton and scheduled it for Thursday 15th. This gave me the opportunity to be at the West Gate Garden at Monash University at 11.50 am. This little garden beside the engineering faculty contains small sections that were cut from the fallen steel span and tested at the university after the collapse, to assist the Royal Commission into the collapse. They are like sculptures, with the bolt-studded metal twisted and torn into dramatic shapes during the collapse. Someone had left a small posy on one of the sections. As 11.50 am arrived I stood there, by myself, and reflected on the tragedy exactly fifty years earlier that produced these shapes, and the men who lost their lives when it happened.

There is a beauty in these shapes, which I hope I have captured in the following images taken on this day.