Divided City - The Tasman Bridge Disaster

Without this bridge, the city of Hobart is virtually divided into two halves.  Car ferries just couldn't cope
Without this bridge, the city of Hobart is virtually divided into two halves. Car ferries just couldn't cope

It is a cold, dark, rainy, blowy night

Sunday night, January 5th, 1975.

It is a cold, dark, rainy, blowy night. The Australian National Line’s bulk ore carrier, the 10,000 tonne Lake Illawarra makes her way slowly up Storm Bay. She’s come from Port Pirie, South Australia. Now, she is bound for the Risdon Metal Refinery three miles upstream from Tasmania’s biggest city, Hobart on the Derwent River. In her cavernous holds are $2,000,000 worth of Broken Hill Zinc. A heavy load, she is low in the water.

Lake Illawarra loading in South Australia
Lake Illawarra loading in South Australia

Street lights shown wanly through the drizzle

The Lake Illawarra had not made a good passage from Port Pirie. The weather had been rough and she’d suffered a series of steering-gear malfunctions enroute. But repairs had been made. Now, she seemed to be responding to her helm all right. Up ahead now, lay the city. The harbour narrowed down. Street lights shone wanly through the drizzle. But they were far apart on either bank of the wide Derwent River. The river was both wide and deep here.

The heavily laden bulk ore carrier is making about eight knots

It is 8-25, pm. and forty-five years old Able Seaman, Bob Banks, takes the wheel. On the bridge and in command of the watch is the captain himself, Captain Boleslaw Pelc, a sixty-year-old veteran sailor. The captain paces here and there keeping a sharp lookout for other shipping. There is none. No fishing boats, no motor cruisers. Not even a tugboat. The heavily laden bulk-ore carrier is making about eight knots or, in today’s parlance, about sixteen kilometres an hour. But she’s headed upstream into a strong current.

A Hobart Icon, the bridge dominates the harbour

The reinforced concrete bridge on a darkening night.
The reinforced concrete bridge on a darkening night.

The bridge is now awfully close

The four-lane motor traffic bridge, built only eleven years before, is now only half a mile ahead. Captain Pelc can make out the long lines of fluorescent lamps which crown the magnificent structure. The bridge is now awfully close.

From Captain Pelc, “Starboard helm.”

The heavily laden ship responds slowly. She is still not in line with the ‘Navigation Span’ -that part of the bridge she is to proceed through and under. Slowly she swings to the right. The bridge is a lot nearer.

 

The channel markers show that the ship is a fraction to far left

It is 9-20 p.m. The harbour has narrowed down and the Lake Illawarra is proceeding upstream in the Derwent River proper Still no river traffic. But the river’s current is strong, relentless, the wind blowing hard, and visibility was poor. Ahead loom the tall, giant spans of the Tasman Bridge. The four-lane traffic bridge towers up. Slim, concrete piers support its entire length and the Lake Illawarra has to sail between the tallest and widest apart of these. But the channel markers show she is a fraction too far to the left.

Eddie - that arch!

Below decks, Second in command, Edward Condon, feels the collision and immediately and rushed up a ladder for the main deck. He thought they’d perhaps hit a tug boat.

On the bridge, Captain Pelc knows better. He yells to his first officer.

“Eddie, that arch! That arch is going to fall on top of us!”

-and just then, it did.

 

The gap in the bridge after the Lake Illawarra hit it.  No sign of the ship.  She's gone under
The gap in the bridge after the Lake Illawarra hit it. No sign of the ship. She's gone under

Tons of concrete bury the whole front section of the ship

7,000 tons of reinforced concrete break away. It hits the bow section of the ship, crushing shipwright Graham Kemp who was still on deck trying to release the second anchor. It hits so quickly and with such force that the bow of the ship is instantly forced under. The noise of its falling is like an explosion that goes on and on. Tons of concrete bury the whole front section of the ship. The Lake Illawarra is forced under, her stem coming to rest on the 35 metre deep river bed. Water pours in everywhere.

The forty-two man crew scramble topside. Twenty make it to the ship’s boat, which floats off it davit as the Lake Illawarra settles into the river bed. With nearly eighty feet of water under her keel she is submerged. Many more sailors jump or drop down into the freezing, fast-flowing river. Seven don’t make it to safety.

 

Danger! Danger! Danger!

Frank Manly's two-door vehicle precariously balancing on edge of broken bridge
Frank Manly's two-door vehicle precariously balancing on edge of broken bridge

Murray Ling and Frank Manly's car don't fall

Two car didn't fall.  Miraculously, all drivers and passengers got out okay
Two car didn't fall. Miraculously, all drivers and passengers got out okay

 Coming from the other side of the gap, Frank Manly slowed his FB Holden Station Wagon   Something was wrong.   There seemed to be something parked right at the side of the road.   As he slowed his wife screamed.  “The bridge is gone!”   But it was too late.   With brakes screeching the car skidded to the edge of the gap-   There it stopped, teetering, wobbling, precariously right on the edge, its front wheels in space.    It was a miracle that Frank Manly and his two passengers were able to climb out.

There'd have been no hope if they had

Because they'd have had no hope of surviving a drop like this.
Because they'd have had no hope of surviving a drop like this.

 Yes, it was a miracle that more cars did not make that fateful plunge that night.    As it was, the Tasman Bridge Disaster took seven crew members from the Lake Illawarra and five motorists.    The long, long bride was severed.   Three concrete spans were gone.   The city was divided.    With the Tasman Bridge destroyed, it was an eighty kilometre drive to get from one side of the city to the other.    8000 daily commuters were effected.    It was a state disaster of tremendous impact.   It cost $39 million dollars and three years before the bridge was finally reopened.

 

Yes, the bridge was reopened.  But today the traffic is stopped whenever a big ship is to pass below.    Who knows when, or if the Tasman Bridge might be struck again.

Beautiful Hobart, Tasmania's Pride

Beautiful Hobart Town.  Once again it's harbour's shores are linked together by the Tasman Bridge.  Let's hope there are no more of what happened in 1975
Beautiful Hobart Town. Once again it's harbour's shores are linked together by the Tasman Bridge. Let's hope there are no more of what happened in 1975

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11 comments

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

You know, a similar catastrophe happened here in Florida. The Sunshine Skyway links the last of the keys that straggle halfway across Tampa Bay with St. Petersburg. One night, a barge hit the pylons, and eighty people died. I try not to think of this whenever driving across the rebuilt bridge -- which is whenever I drive to Tampa Airport to pick up visitors. The old bridge, now only the two segments on each side are fishing piers today.

Thought I'd share. Well written story, Tom. I enjoyed. Lynda


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 6 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Thanks, Lynda.

Yes, I knew of the Tampa Bay disaster. Found out about it when I was doing a little more research on the Tasman Bridge story. You might like my one on The Hoodoo Ship. It involves both American and Australian vessels.


CASE1WORKER profile image

CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

Wonderful! I was gripped from the minute I started reading this dramatic account. I wonder that they did not employ river pilots at the time


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 6 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Case1Worker, you spoil me...Love the accolades. Also like your cat. I've got one, too. Penny. Thanks again.

Tom.


Kim 5 years ago

Interesting story Tom!! Where did you get all your details from??


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Kim - Recall incident from News reports at the time. But most of this is now on the Internet.


L. Bigwood 5 years ago

I recall the Tasman Bridge Disaster, all though Frank Manley, surviving motorist, happens to be my uncle, and his car was a 1974 HQ GTS Monaro coupe in the picture shown above, not an FB. Although Mr Murray Ling's car was an EK station wagon.


Lucy 5 years ago

My family moved to Tasmania shortly after the bridge disaster. We lived on the Eastern Shore and the school I attended was located across the river on the Western Shore. For 2 years, I crossed the river via a ferry boat. Cost to ride was 5 cents! Our home was located in Rosny, and had a great view of the bridge. My family moved to the US just prior to the reopening of the bridge. It's always been my dream to return to Tasmania and cross the bridge!


righttoremain 4 years ago

Great article. Good read.

I am trying to discover the names and ages of all of those who perished from the vessel and from the road. Do you have any idea where I can find them?

Cheers


Copycath 4 years ago

Hi rightoremian... You can just googel list of names killed in Tasman Bridge disaster Jan 1975 - I rember the day this happened, was about 13 and lived in Hobart, we had to go to the Airport that day, we woke up that morning to learn that through the night " a ship hit the bridge" .... in effect, what was usually just a three min drive from one side of our beautiful bridge ( and city ) to the other, was now suddenly, a three hour drive, via Bridgewater Bridge , then back down Old Beach Rd, on the eastern side of the river, which was back then, mostly old dirt/goat tracks, over rickety noisy wooden bridges, past the old homesteads that were peppered along the eashern shores of the Derwent River back then, not at all like it is today. Have always loved this beautful bridge down there in my hometown... AND... I went to London 2009, very first person I spoke to on The Heathrow Express" told me that her father entered an engineering competition to desgin the Tasman Bridge..and he won it, she was very pleased to have met anyone who even knew of the bridge her dad built, much less someone who could tell her the name of that bloody ship !!!


Wyatt 3 years ago

Your article pelecftry shows what I needed to know, thanks!

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