Watson reflects on West Gate Bridge tragedy

The West Gate Bridge collapse on 15 October 1970 is Australia’s worst industrial accident.

West Gate Bridge

Thirty-five workers died when a 112-metre span fell 50 metres to the ground and water below at 11.50am that Thursday.

Fitter and turner Tommy Watson had worked on the bridge for nine months and celebrated his 23rd birthday the previous weekend. He and his crew were on the Port Melbourne side of the river at the water’s edge about 100 metres from the bridge transferring steel to the Williamstown side.

“I heard an almighty crack like the snapping of a tree coming down,” Tommy said. “I turned around and I could see the bridge falling. The concrete piling was crumbling and heading right towards where we were working.

“I ran away from the bridge but within five or 10 seconds, you realise that your workmates are somewhere under that structure, so we all turned around and ran back. 

“When it was actually happening, you really don’t have time to think. You’re just looking for your workmate, looking for your best mate, looking for somebody and your mind is just completely blank. It’s hard to explain. I’ve never been in a war, but it would be much the same.”

If the ghastly accident site resembled a war zone, Tommy and his colleagues were like stretcher bearers, valiantly searching for and retrieving workmates who had been badly injured or killed.

“If you have a look at any of the old videos or photos, you’ll see a lot of the workers carrying stretchers because there were workers who ran from the glass works towards the bridge.

“There were workers on the concrete section and there were workers on the Port Melbourne side. So within about 10 minutes there were about 500 workers there long before the fire brigade, the police or the ambulance arrived,” he said.

West Gate Bridge fitter and turner Tommy Watson

Eighteen people survived riding the bridge to the ground, and Tommy and his colleagues helped get them to safety. 

“We got the 18 people out before most of the emergency services arrived,” he said “They didn’t have the skills they’ve got today, they weren’t trained, they didn’t drive forklifts. We needed cranes and all sorts of machinery to get steel off.”

Tommy and his colleagues worked through the weekend, recovering bodies from the wreckage.

“On the Monday, they told us to have the day off and, on that day, (Victorian Premier Sir Henry) Bolte called a Royal Commission to investigate the disaster because he had so much public pressure on him,” Tommy said.

“When we got in on Tuesday, the job was all locked, there were security guards on the gate, we get herded like sheep into this little corner of the car park and they tell us what a great job we’ve done and saved lives.

“At the end of it they said: ‘Sorry about that, the Royal Commission’s been called, you’re all getting terminated,’ and an armoured car comes in. ‘Here’s all your money, see you later’.

For Tommy, losing his job made it even tougher to deal with the deaths of his friends. “You’re feeling guilty that your mates are dead – why wasn’t I killed and how come I survived – and then when you try and go back to work to get things back to normal, you get sacked on the spot with a week’s wages. Society wouldn’t allow it to happen today.”

A week after the collapse, Tommy attended nine funerals on the Thursday, and five on the Friday, all for men he knew. 

“There were about five car loads of us at the cemetery and we just sat in the corner with car fridges, just walking to the funeral and walking back, walking to the funeral and walking back. 

“So, we’re standing at funerals on the Thursday a week after the bridge collapsed watching our mates being buried, all terminated, all out of work, no counselling, no support.”

Tommy spent the next 18 months trying to put his life back together, travelling around the country and working odd jobs. He received a telegram inviting him back to work on the bridge in July 1972 and stayed until January 1978. The bridge opened that December.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t go back,” he said. “They couldn’t go back. My attitude is I went back because I wanted to finish it for my workmates and I wanted to finish it for me, too. 

“Living in the western suburbs, it was something I was never going to avoid for the rest of my life. It’s too big. You’ve got to go over it. I went back for my satisfaction and the satisfaction of my workmates.” 

Tommy dedicated the rest of his working life to worker health and safety, accepting a three-month job with the iron-workers union that became a 33-year career as an official.

“I’m not sure I was going to head in that direction, but if the West Gate Bridge doesn’t change your thinking or doesn’t change your life or the direction you go in, what’s got to happen to do that? I mean, if a major disaster doesn’t put you on a course where you’re going to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again, what do you need to change the course of your life?”

How will Tommy observe the 50th anniversary of the collapse?

“There’s not a lot we can do because of the COVID-19 restrictions,” he said. “We had a big function organised and it looks like we’ll put that off until next year. 

“On the actual day, I’ll probably just drive past the bridge, sit in the car for a couple of minutes and think about my workmates and what happened that day.”

Read more about the West Gate Bridge tragedy.

- Andrew Bartram