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The People’s Hospital Tales from the surgeon's table

Reliving the West Gate Bridge collapse

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A worker injured in the West Gate Bridge collapse is carried away from the disaster zone.

Newscorp Ltd

Reliving the West Gate Bridge collapse

Just before midday on 15 October 1970, a span of the half-built West Gate Bridge collapsed into the Yarra River, killing 35 construction workers. It was Australia’s worst industrial accident.

A royal commission investigated the disaster and found a litany of errors in the bridge’s structural design and method of erection had caused the bridge to collapse.

Surgeons Kevin King and David Kennedy and theatre nurse Liz Edmonds were on duty the day the bridge fell.

Kevin King, orthopaedic surgeon: “I was looking out the window of the orthopaedic theatre, it used to look south east. I was looking at the bridge and something happened. I couldn’t tell what it was. Suddenly a grey sort of pillar appeared and that was the water in the Yarra splashing upwards as the bridge span fell down.

Then about 10 minutes later we got the message that there were five survivors and they were bringing them in to us.

For the first five minutes I had no idea of what I had seen but it was the collapse of the West Gate Bridge.

One of the survivors fell 180 feet and survived. He was under my care. He survived because he fell on to a roll of chicken wire that was spread over the railway line.

He had multiple severe injuries – thoracic, spinal and abdominal injuries, multiple fractures.

You reach terminal velocity after falling 100 feet, which is 120 miles an hour.

He was the one who told me that people knew the bridge was going to collapse about six months beforehand. This chap was the senior engineer but he was a very young chap. He told me he kept ringing up the engineering company in Bristol, saying, ‘Look the bridge is making terrible creaking noises’.

He went down with the span. It’s a terrible story. I’ll always remember that poor, unfortunate engineer. He must have gone through hell in his last few months.

Most of the men involved in the bridge collapse were killed outright. We got two survivors who both fell on to the chicken wire.

The engineer was in hospital for months but he survived.”

David Kennedy, urologist: “I was in theatre when the West Gate Bridge fell down. You could see the bridge from the theatre windows; it was covered in dust. Then the casualties started coming in. Most were so severely injured they died. Some went to the Royal Melbourne but a lot of the casualties came to the Western.

I was just finishing my operating list. The injured were exsanguinated - they were white because they’d lost so much blood. It was a terrible scene, almost like a casualty station in the war.”

Liz Edmonds, nurse: “The hospital cancelled the theatre list, sent as many patients home as they could and set up special four-bed wards to receive the injured. But we hardly had anybody from the bridge because most of the workers died.”

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