For many, the West Gate Bridge is a vital connection between the city and the suburbs, one that’s always been around, robust and carrying thousands of Victorians every day. But it is a bridge with a sad history, especially when it came crashing down 50 years ago in a twist of concrete and steel.
It was a shocking workplace catastrophe and 35 of the 80 men who went to work on the bridge that day died in what is now known as Australia’s worst industrial disaster.
At the time, Station Officer Peter Dent was having his lunch at the local station and serving as what was then known as a Station Officer for The Victorian Civil Ambulance Service when the intercom call came through from the control room. The District Officer said there was a “bridge down with approximately 80 men on it” as the disaster bell began to ring throughout the station.
Peter recalls his shock hearing the call out. “My first reaction was that this was an emergency drill.”
But it wasn’t. “I was urgently briefed on the reality of the situation and we were required to attend. I loaded this medical gear into the back of my ambulance, we made a rapid departure for the disaster scene. We arrived at the bridge; a scene that, from this first sight and my participation in the hours to follow, would remain with me for the duration of my life.”
On reaching the scene, Peter didn’t see the strong bridge many Victorians embraced as a sign of progress. It defied his personal experiences, one forged in medical emergencies and devastating bushfires. “I was 24 years old back then”, he says. “I could only describe the scene before us as something I had seen in a war movie: twisted wreckage, smoke, and cries for help.”
Also on site was Joseph Ozelis, who had left his job as an Ambulance Officer a few months before to become a first aid officer on the West Gate Bridge construction site. Sadly, he was one of the many victims that day.
Despite all the activity, Peter remembers some people clearly through the haze of an emergency. Speaking of one person on the scene who needed and got medical help, “to this day, I wonder if this person survived and whether I personally could have done more for him”. Partnered up with a police officer to locate people and provide aid, Peter still wonders “so many years on whether this police officer is still alive and recalls our association”.
He recalls the event with gratitude, saying “this massive operation illustrated man’s compassion for man, and brought out the very finest in the many rescuers contributing”. In the midst of locating people throughout the site – a muddy and grim task – Peter recounts “we had a tomato sandwich and mug of tea thrust into our hands. Looking around, our provider was a Salvation Army officer. God bless him! I had eaten little lunch and missed breakfast and so consumed the welcome sandwich and sipped tea…and the Salvos still live with me in great endearment and respect.”
At the end of his shift, Peter “were returned to Ambulance Headquarters, where we cleaned up. From there, we went home to our eager awaiting families, all family members most grateful that we ourselves, unlike so many that day, were returning safely home.”
From everyone at Ambulance Victoria, we thank all our officers who attended the incident, several of whom are current members of our Retired Ambulance Association (RAAV). We honour your commitment and care on what would have been a difficult day serving your community.
We would also like to acknowledge the dedication of Victoria Police, Fire Rescue Victoria, St John Ambulance, Civil Defence (now SES). The Salvation Army, doctors, padres and many volunteer organisations that worked tirelessly to support the rescue efforts.
Our condolences to the many families who lost loved ones that day and had their lives changed forever.