At 11:50 am on October 15, 1970, the West Gate Bridge suddenly groaned.

An eerie pinging noise filled the air and the girders started to turn blue under the pressure.

A section of the bridge plunged 50 metres into the water below and within a matter of minutes, lives were stolen and changed forever. 

It was Australia’s worst modern industrial accident and a transformational moment in Melbourne’s history.

For decades, the disaster has been etched into the shared memory of Victorians, with many in the western suburbs able to recall what they were doing the moment they heard the news or felt the tremor from the bridge itself.

For 47 years, Melburnians have gathered at the site on October 15 to commemorate one of Australia’s darkest days.

Organised by the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee, the annual event honours the victims, survivors and family members, as well as the brave workers who risked everything to recover the dead and injured.

The solemn ceremony includes a procession over the bridge to the West Gate Bridge Memorial, where wreathes are laid followed by a gathering at a nearby venue.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and government restrictions, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary won’t go ahead at the memorial site this year.

Danny Gardiner, a member of the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee, said this is the first time in 47 years that the event won’t be held.

“We were planning to hold it at the Seaworks Maritime Precinct, in Williamstown, and we were expecting up to 700 people with guest speakers,” Gardiner said.

“But safety comes first; we can’t argue for occupational health and safety and still hold the event [amid a pandemic].”

The committee is postponing the 50th anniversary commemoration until next year, and it will take place on October 15, 2021.

Instead, Australians will be able to pay tribute to those affected by the national tragedy from the safety of their homes today, with an online memorial event to be held at 11:30 am on the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Facebook page.

The event will feature guest speakers Tommy Watson, who was working on the bridge the day it collapsed, David Setka and James Webster.

Setka is the grandson of one of the 18 workers who survived on that day, and Webster is the grandson of a worker who was killed. 

A minute’s silence will also be observed during the ceremony, with building sites around Victoria halting work at 11:50 am to pay their tributes.

The virtual commemoration will also feature a performance by the Trades Hall Choir.

Later in the evening, Victorians can tune in to Nine Network at 7:30 pm to view the documentary West Gate Bridge Disaster: The Untold Stories.

Presented by Shane Jacobson, it’s the first documentary ever made about one of the most tragic and monumental events in Australia’s history.

The intimate and compelling documentary tells the poignant stories of survival and grief, and reveals what really went on that day, as well as how the disaster led to big changes in industrial safety laws, and how the bridge was salvaged to become one of Melbourne’s vital transport links.

While the pandemic has changed how we honour those who died in the disaster and their workmates who lived to tell the tale, their memory will always live on in the homes and hearts of Melburnians.