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Remembering the West Gate Bridge collapse

Remembering the West Gate Bridge collapse

Remembering the West Gate Bridge collapse

Major John Kirkham (facing the camera) with Brigadiers Wally Bryant and Bill Shaw, who were the first Salvation Army personnel on the scene of the West Gate Bridge collapse on 15 October, 1970.

Fifty years ago today, a 112-metre span of the West Gate Bridge above Melbourne’s Yarra River collapsed while under construction. Thirty-five people died and many were injured. In an article reprinted from The Salvation Army Heritage Newsletter from 2010, Lieutenant-Colonel John Kirkham (now Promoted to Glory) reflects on The Salvation Army’s role in the emergency response.

By John Kirkham

Just after 11:50am on 15 October 1970, Mrs Brigadier Hedley Preston heard a radio report of the West Gate Bridge collapse and immediately rang her husband, who was Melbourne Central divisional commander. He immediately rang Commissioner Fred Harvey, territorial commander.

At that time the emergency services were part of the Social Services Department under Lieut-Colonel Charles Stevenson who was absent that day, as was his assistant who was on holidays. Commissioner Harvey directed Brigadier Bill Shaw to proceed to the bridge, taking Brigadier Bryant and Major Kirkham with him, and to “do what they could.”

Brigadier Shaw immediately arranged for THQ to provide a telephonist on a 24-hour basis to take charge of communications. He then phoned the young woman’s hostel and asked them to provide cooked refreshments to be collected and delivered by the training college. Major Kirkham phoned the training college. The staff and cadets were to provide endless supplies of sandwiches, cakes etc. and deliver them to the Westgate Bridge. They were also to provide chaplains and counsellors. He also phoned Box Hill Boys Home asking for refreshments to be cooked and delivered to the West Gate Bridge. Brigadier Bryant phoned The Gill and asked them to provide continuous supplies of hot water in milk cans, and also biscuits, to be collected and delivered by the training college.

Brigadiers Shaw, Bryant and Major Kirkham then proceeded to the West Gate Bridge in their own cars, each bearing a Red Shield sign, via, The Gill, where they picked up initial suipplies, enabling immediate commencement of relief on arrival at the bridge. Their unexpected arrival was greatly appreciated by West Gate Bridge officials. They were immediately directed to a muddy site, as near to the activity as possible. Workers were frantically searching for survivors. Radio contact was also made available to them to keep in contact with THQ and they remained at the site until well after dark, when they were relieved by other officers and some cadets. In fact, the training college was the main supply for personnel and refreshments throughout the rescue operations.

Two other officers of TSA deserve special mention. Major Keith Rawlings set up his own St Johns Ambulance tent with the approval of the West Gate Bridge authorities. He remained there (sleeping in his tent as necessary) throughout the operation. Lieutenant Brian Golding, appointed to Footscray Corps, on hearing of the tragedy, immediately proceeded to the Footscray side of the river and rendered similar emergency-type activity.

Lieut-Colonel John Kirkham was one of the first on the scene of Victoria’s worst industrial accident.

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