West Gate Bridge tragedy: “My first reaction was that this was an emergency drill.”

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.”

Peter Dent, circa 1970

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”.

Image courtesy of Dr Allan Mawdsley

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.

Royvin Barbuto – Boilermaker

Ross Bigmore – Carpenter

Amadeo Boscolo – Carpenter

Bernard Butters – Boilermaker

Cyril Carmichael – Ironworker

Peter Crossley – Engineer

Peter Dawson – Rigger

Abraham
Eden – Rigger

Anthony
Falzon – Carpenter

Esequiel
Fernandez -Ironworker

Bernard Fitzsimmonds
– Ironworker

Victor
Gerada – Ironworker

John Grist
– Boilermaker

William
Harburn – Boilermaker

Jack
Hindshaw – Engineer

Trevor
Hunsdale – Fitter

John Little
– Rigger

Charles
Lund – Rigger

Peter
McGuire – Rigger

Ian Miller
– Engineer

Jeremiah
Murphy – Rigger

Dennis
O’Brien – Rigger

Joseph
Ozelis – First Aid (Ex V.C.A.S.)

Frank
Piermarini – Rigger

George Pram
– Rigger

Lesley
Scarlett – Ironworker

Christopher
Stewart – Boilermaker

Alfonso
Suarez – Boilermaker

William
Tracy – Engineer

George
Tsihilidis – Boilermaker

Edgar
Upsdell – Ironworker

Robert West
– Boilermaker

Robert
Whelan – Boilermaker

Patrick
Woods – Rigger

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