Disaster At West Gate: The 1970 Bridge Collapse 

Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

These pages explore Victoria's (Australia) worst-ever industrial accident: the collapse of the partially completed West Gate Bridge, as told through official archived public records held by Public Record Office Victoria. 

The Bridge

The West Gate Bridge is a steel box girder cable-stayed bridge in Melbourne, Victoria. 

It is the second longest bridge in Australia and one of the highest in the country, most notably trailing that of the more iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Sketch of the collapse from the inquest files1970

The Accident

Two years into construction of the bridge, at 11.50 am on 15 October 1970, the 112m (367.5 ft) span between piers 10 and 11 collapsed and fell 50m (164 ft) to the ground and water below.

Thirty-five construction workers were killed. Some of those who perished were on their lunch break beneath the structure in the workers' huts, which were crushed by the falling span. Others were working on top and inside the girder when it fell. 

The whole 2,000-tonne mass plummeted into the Yarra River mud with an explosion of gas, dust and mangled metal that shook buildings hundreds of metres away. Nearby houses were spattered with flying mud. 

It took another eight years for the the reconstructed bridge to be completed in 1978.

Wreckage viewed from above

“Rescuers worked all afternoon and far into the night, always in horrifying conditions, often in peril of death or injury themselves. A fire broke out as a result of spilled diesel oil igniting; while quickly extinguished, the fire added to the difficulties of rescue work… All that was humanly possible to save life and mitigate the suffering of the injured was undoubtedly done.”

Shortly after the Westgate Bridge collapse, fire still burning. Oct 15, 1970
ABC 7pm news Westgate Bridge collapse 1970

Eyewitness Accounts

As well as the high public interest in the accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors of the disaster, witness testimony was vital to the official understanding of the collapse.

These depositions are extracts taken from the proceedings of the royal commission (1970–71) and coronial inquests (1973). 

Many of the witnesses read statements which they had made previously to police, shortly after the accident.

Rescuers search through the rubble (detail)

Technical Committee

With the rescue operation still underway, the coroner decided to establish an expert technical committee. 

Their task was to ensure that as much information as possible was preserved, to observe and record what facts there were on site and to maintain an open mind as to the cause of the accident.

The committee consisted of five professionals from the fields of engineering, metallurgy, building and chemistry. 

Two committee members visited the site on the evening of the collapse and again the following morning. 

The following Saturday, one of the project engineers was interviewed on site with the committee and police present. The committee also procured and examined records such as photographs, lists of work diaries, drawings and other documents. They provided a list of possible modes of collapse and suggested which causes were most critical and required further investigation.

Cover of the Technical Committee
Sketch of the bridge's construction

Royal Commission

Amid the nationwide grief and horror, then Premier Sir Henry Bolte announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate the cause of the collapse. 

The commission sat for 80 days and heard evidence from 52 witnesses, under oath and subject to examination and cross-examination. 

Among the 319 exhibits received in evidence were correspondence, legal documents, plans, drawings and photographs.

The report, tabled in parliament in 1971, detailed a number of factors that contributed to the bridge’s failure and left no party associated with the collapse blameless.

Repoort of the Royal Commission
Parts of the wreckage preserved as evidence

The Cause

The Royal Commission attributed the failure of the bridge to two causes: 

1. the structural design by Freeman Fox & Partners; and

2. an unusual method of construction by World Services and Construction (the original contractors of the project). 

From an engineering perspective, on the day of the collapse, there was a difference in camber of 11.4 centimetres (4.5 in) between two half-girders at the west end of the span which needed to be joined. It was proposed that the higher one be weighted down with 10 concrete blocks, each 8 tonnes, which were located on site. 

The weight of these blocks caused the span to buckle, which was a sign of structural failure. The longitudinal joining of the half girders was partially complete when orders came through to remove the buckle. As the bolts were removed, the bridge snapped back and the span collapsed.

Utterly Unnecessary

Design and construction methods were fully reconsidered by the West Gate Bridge Authority before work began again in 1972. The commission was careful to examine the roles each party played in the tragedy. 

It concluded: “The disaster which occurred… and the tragedy of the 35 deaths was utterly unnecessary. That it should have been allowed to happen was inexcusable. There was no sudden onslaught of natural forces, no unexpected failure of new or untested material. The reasons for the collapse are to be found in the acts and omissions of those entrusted with building a bridge of a new and highly sophisticated design. The various companies who supplied the materials used were not shown to be in any way at fault, and must be held blameless. However, among those engaged upon the design and construction of the steel spans there were mistakes, miscalculations, errors of judgement, failure of communication and sheer inefficiency. In greater or less degree, the Authority itself, the designers, the contractors, even the labour engaged in the work, must all take some part of the blame.” 

'...the tragedy of the 35 deaths was utterly unnecessary.

The reasons for the collapse are to be found in the acts and omissions of those entrusted with building a bridge of a new and highly sophisticated design.'

Royal Commission Report

An official party inspecting the disaster site 

Global Response

The commission report was widely circulated and its conclusions were noted by building and designing companies around the world. Bridges of similar design in Britain and Europe were temporarily closed and tested for safety.

The Wreckage Viewed from Above

This exhibition is based loosely on the original physical exhibition at Old Treasury Building and online exhibition on the PROV website. 


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Curator — Kate Luciano
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