He was standing about 100 metres away.
“For the primary few seconds, it was like being in a automobile accident, issues occur shortly and gradual on the identical time,” says Watson.
The collapse of a bit of the bridge took 35 lives with it. It was certainly one of Australia’s worst industrial disasters and a transformational second in Melbourne’s historical past. It reshaped office security and the labour motion and impressed a era of usually militant activists whose affect remains to be felt at the moment.
For many years, the catastrophe has been etched into the shared reminiscence of Victorians, with many within the west in a position to recall what they have been doing the second they heard the information or the thud suburbs away from the bridge itself.
The deaths left 28 widows and 88 kids with out fathers. For years afterwards dad and mom crossing the bridge would solemnly inform their children of its terrible historical past. Now the variety of survivors and the shared reminiscence of the catastrophe are fading. However there’s nonetheless classes from it to make sure such a catastrophe by no means occurs once more.
On October 15, 1970, 500 gallons (1900 litres) of diesel had been loaded on the bridge, Watson recollects. Because the part of the bridge got here down, it shattered home windows in close by buildings and the diesel caught hearth, creating an inferno.
“The flames and the warmth have been unbelievable,” he says.
As he raced over from the place he was working he noticed a person in flames calling out his title. “Some folks survived coming down and have been killed within the hearth. Lots of people acquired burned to loss of life.”
Watson, now retired after a protracted and profitable union profession, is direct, affable and fascinating. He tells of the horrors in a matter-of-fact method, nevertheless it’s clear there’s nonetheless ache and remorse. Within the weeks earlier than the bridge got here down, the employees had grown nervous. An analogous type of bridge with the identical designer, Freeman Fox, had collapsed in Wales in June, killing 4. The West Gate employees demanded solutions and refused to work. The engineer and designer despatched from London, Jack Hindshaw, reassured them at a gathering that the design was secure.
“I’m a 23-year-old who is aware of nothing concerning the world and I’m standing as much as an engineer. Who have been we to argue about well being and security? We’re not on the identical degree.”
Watson and others voted to return to work. You possibly can nonetheless hear remorse in his voice. The employees and Watson have been, after all, innocent for returning. Fault resided elsewhere.
The speedy aftermath
If an analogous catastrophe occurred at the moment, extremely educated and well-equipped paramedics, hearth companies and police would do the work. In 1970, the companies have been much more primitive. Then it was the employees themselves who tried to avoid wasting folks trapped underneath metal, retrieving our bodies and physique components together with arms, fingers and legs.
Days after the collapse, Watson and his co-workers have been nonetheless making an attempt to rescue the fallen. He fished a person out of the Stony Level swamp whose eyes and smooth tissue had been gnawed at by water rats.
Inside days, the employees have been laid off by employer John Holland, a remaining twist amid the funerals, devastation, trauma and grief.
“On Monday, they informed us we may have the break day. We got here in on the Tuesday and the automobile park was closed. All of us acquired herded into the automobile park and all acquired sacked on the spot. We had no counselling and no assist. For 18 months, you simply walked round consuming grog and getting on with life.”
Compensation payouts on the time have been low and donations got here in from hundreds of employees and the general public to complement the meagre state pensions paid to widows.
When The Age visited the memorial on a bleak and windswept day in late September, a single bouquet of flowers lay on the base of the memorial.
Staff have been nonetheless lively on the bridge above, with an space fenced off for sheds close to the place it had collapsed. Trying up from its base, you’re struck by how excessive the bridge is at that time and the way miraculous it was that anybody survived the autumn. However 18 males did.
Then and now
The Liberal authorities of Premier Henry Bolte was in energy in 1970 and Victoria was a producing powerhouse. The bridge, backed by highly effective businessmen, was to hyperlink the economic west with the remainder of town.
Many years of financial increase had fed heady optimism a couple of way forward for technological progress. However whereas the workforce on an enormous constructing venture was closely unionised, as it might be at the moment in Victoria, there remained a deference to the engineers based mostly partially on class.
“It was like a boss-servant relationship in them days,” Watson recollects. The catastrophe helped change that. “In case you look at the moment, we’ve acquired an Occupational Well being and Security Act. Folks have the proper to usher in consultants,” Watson says.
“Staff are loads smarter than we have been. Right now, I’m unsure we’d have gone again to work. I am unsure the West Gate Bridge would have collapsed.”
Whereas some issues have modified – Victoria is now not an industrial powerhouse, its economic system is now reliant on companies, training and development – some issues are acquainted.
As educational and creator Elizabeth Humphrys has famous, the social map of town stays a lot because it was 50 years in the past. The few engineers that have been killed within the collapse lived within the prosperous japanese suburbs akin to Malvern and Brighton whereas the boilermakers, ironworkers and carpenters have been from what are nonetheless working-class suburbs akin to Glenroy, Reservoir and Corio.
Lots of the latter have been migrants, a part of the postwar wave from Europe that reshaped town.
The ‘gravitating pressure’
Within the aftermath of the catastrophe, a royal fee was referred to as and the ultimate report described the collapse as “totally pointless”, with blame falling closely on the designers and builders.
“My judgment was he [Hindshaw, who was also killed in the collapse] was reckless and he took well being and security to the sting,” Watson says.
Humphrys, a political economist who co-authored an educational paper on the catastrophe, says the royal fee’s report unfairly criticised unions and employees for industrial motion earlier than the collapse, with out making it clear that the strikes have been additionally about security. She says that whereas chatting with survivors, she was struck by how the collapse was a “gravitating pressure of their lives” they usually see it as their accountability to guard its reminiscence.
After working as a rigger, Tommy Watson grew to become a union official for 33 years and president of the CFMEU. That union’s present secretary, John Setka was in major college when his father, Bob, miraculously rode the bridge down and survived, whereas the late John Cummins, a legendary determine within the union whose face nonetheless adorns constructing web site flags, labored on the venture as a younger man.
There have been many others who went on to have important careers in Victoria’s constructing unions.
There’s little doubt the catastrophe had a permanent affect on the CFMEU in Victoria, the state the place it’s strongest and controversial for its hardline strategy.
“In case you witnessed one thing like that and it doesn’t change your life or your angle,” Watson asks, “what do you must undergo to alter your life or angle?”
Danny Gardiner labored on the bridge for almost 4 years after it had collapsed. He says there was additional tragedy – a 36th man, Joe Owens, was killed at work in 1972 – however there are important lasting enhancements.
“It was the perfect development job I’d ever labored on and that was the lads on the job and the well being and security precautions that have been taken after that,” he says. “What got here out of the tragedy have been occupational well being and security rules and males working safer themselves. It created a complete breed and entire era of union officers.”
Gardiner has been concerned with the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee, set as much as commemorate the catastrophe, for 25 years.
“We wish to get our message throughout from our era to the subsequent era … in case you see one thing unsafe, you want to say one thing about it,” Gardiner says.
This 12 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed plans for an enormous gathering underneath the bridge of 600 to 700 folks. Scheduled to talk have been the grandsons of one of many males killed, ironworker Victor Gerada, and Bob Setka.
Watson says he hopes in one other 50 years individuals are nonetheless speaking concerning the “catastrophe of the West Gate Bridge” – as a result of it might imply “there hasn’t been one other one”.
Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on the underpayment of wages, corruption, enterprise, politics and the labour motion. His reporting has received quite a few main honours together with Walkley awards. He has been a part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.