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ABC listeners share their haunting memories of the West Gate Bridge collapse

Just before noon on October 15, 1970, an almighty bang was heard around Melbourne. Read accounts from students who witnessed the collapse to the dedicated hospital workers who tried to save the injured.

It was meant to connect Melbourne's east and west, but on October 15, 1970, the West Gate Bridge united Victorians in grief.

The sound of 2,000 tonnes of steel and concrete crashing to the ground, claiming the lives of 35 men, could be heard around the city.

While marking the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, ABC Radio Melbourne asked listeners and Facebook users to share their memories of an unforgettable day in the city's history.

A black and white photograph of the collapsed West Gate Bridge taken from above.A black and white photograph of the collapsed West Gate Bridge taken from above.
The collapse of the West Gate Bridge sent many workers tumbling into the mud and water of the Yarra River, and trapped others beneath tonnes of wreckage.(Supplied: Public Records Office of Victoria)

Many were kids at nearby schools, or happened to be in the area when the partially constructed bridge fell just before noon.

"I was travelling home as a 15-year-old on the train. We just heard a huge bang, looked out the doors and saw a giant cloud of dust rising" — Jill, Torquay

"We were on a school excursion. It fell down while we were looking at it. It's always in my mind when I look at it" — Kate, Glen Iris

"I grew up in Hyde St [Footscray] and watched the bridge under construction. I remember the day it fell. The ground shook. I'll never never forget it. I was 15" — John, Bacchus Marsh

For hospital workers, it was a frantic afternoon
A black and white drawing showing how the West Gate Bridge collapsed on October 15, 1970.A black and white drawing showing how the West Gate Bridge collapsed on October 15, 1970.
This illustration showing how the West Gate Bridge collapsed was submitted as part of an inquest into the 35 deaths.(Supplied: Public Records Office of Victoria)

"I was in charge of the cardiothoracic ward of the Royal Melbourne. We had to clear out as many patients as we could to make way for casualties. It was horrific. They were covered in oil, blood. I had dreams about it for days" — Sandra, Mentone

"To see a tragedy and its consequence is simply unforgettable. I recall driving down to Williamstown soon after and to stand silently looking at the site. It was quite sad"— Frances, via text

"I was idly looking out the window and saw the bridge fall down. It was just pandemonium" — Louise, Miners Rest

Word quickly spread around Melbourne
The West Gate Bridge is shown with the Yarra River in the foreground and Melbourne's skyline in the background.The West Gate Bridge is shown with the Yarra River in the foreground and Melbourne's skyline in the background.
The bridge carries up to 200,000 vehicles a day.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

"I was manning the Salvation Army headquarters telephone plug and cord switchboard at the time and all 11 outside lines lit up in sequence. I knew something was up" — Elizabeth, Facebook

"I was working in Bank St, South Melbourne. The noise was deafening. I later learnt that we had lost a dear friend who was working on the bridge" — Val, Facebook

"My father was a chaplain at the Mission to Seamen in Flinders Street. When the bridge collapsed he went to the site to support the survivors and administer the last rites to those [who died]" — Bryden, Facebook

Bridge collapse 'was like slow motion'
Tommy Watson stands in front of the West Gate BridgeTommy Watson stands in front of the West Gate Bridge
Tommy Watson was near the West Gate Bridge when it collapsed and remains a vocal advocate for worker safety.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

Tommy Watson, a construction worker who witnessed the collapse from below, recalled how everyone was preparing for their lunch break when tragedy struck.

"We heard an almighty crack. It was the steel splitting. The concrete beside me started to crumble," he told ABC Radio Melbourne.

"I could see it coming down. It was like slow motion."

Disaster still haunts men who were there

The West Gate Bridge collapse was a perfect storm of engineering failures, safety neglect and bad luck.

Read more

Mr Watson said he rushed to the bridge after seeing his colleagues falling to their deaths.

The then-23-year-old went on to become the president of the CFMEU and said the incident spurred him to fight for worker safety.

"I want people to know what happened 50 years ago so workers today … don't get treated the same way we were," Mr Watson said.

Mr Watson still lives in Melbourne's western suburbs, and said the memories of his fallen mates still haunt him when he crosses the section of the bridge that collapsed.

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