Divided City - The Tasman Bridge Disaster
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.
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 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.
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!
Murray Ling and Frank Manly's car don't fall
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
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
More on the writer
- Tom Ware Public Speaking The Prince of Storytellers
Tom Ware Public Speaking! Tips, events and videos to help you become a gifted speaker. Visit now!