The Tasman Bridge disaster occurred on the evening of 5 January 1975, in Hobart, the capital city of Australia’s island state of Tasmania, when a bulk ore carrier travelling up the Derwent River collided with several pylons of the Tasman Bridge, causing a large section of the bridge deck to collapse onto the ship and into the river below.
Twelve people were killed, including seven crew on board the ship, and the five occupants of four cars which fell 45 m (150 feet) after driving off the bridge.
Hobart was cut-off from its eastern suburbs, and the loss of the road connection had a major social impact. The ship’s master was officially penalised for inattention and failure to handle his vessel in a seamanlike manner.
The collision occurred at 9:27 p.m. (Australian Eastern Summer Time UTC+11) on Sunday 5 January 1975. The bulk carrier Lake Illawarra, carrying 10,000 tonnes of zinc ore concentrate, was heading up the Derwent River to offload its cargo to the Electrolytic Zinc Company at Risdon, upstream from Hobart and about 3 km from the bridge. The 1,025 m long main viaduct of the bridge was composed of a central main navigation span, two flanking secondary navigation spans, and 19 approach spans.
The ship was off course as it neared the bridge, partly due to the strong tidal current but also because of inattention by the ship’s master, Captain Boleslaw Pelc. Initially approaching the bridge at eight knots, Pelc slowed the ship to a ‘safe’ speed. Although the Lake Illawarra was capable of passing through the bridge’s central navigation span, the captain attempted to pass through one of the eastern spans.
Despite several changes of course, the ship proved unmanageable due to its insufficient speed relative to the current. In desperation the captain ordered ‘full speed astern’, at which point all control was lost. The vessel drifted towards the bridge midway between the central navigation span and the eastern shore, crashing into the pile capping of piers 18 and 19, bringing three unsupported spans and a 127 m section of roadway crashing into the river and onto the vessel’s deck.
The ship listed to starboard and sank within minutes in 35 m of water a short distance to the south. Seven crew members on the Lake Illawarra were trapped and drowned. The subsequent marine court of inquiry found that the captain had not handled the ship in a proper and seamanlike manner, and his certificate was suspended for six months.
As the collision occurred on a Sunday evening, there was relatively little traffic on the bridge. While no cars were travelling between the 18th and 19th pylons when that section collapsed, four cars drove over the gap, killing five occupants. Two drivers managed to stop their vehicles at the edge, but not before their front wheels had dropped over the lip of the bridge deck.
Private citizens living nearby were on the scene early, even before the ship had sunk. Three of these were Jack Read in his H28 yacht Mermerus, David Read in a small launch, and Jerry Chamberlain, who had their boats moored in Montagu Bay close by. These and others, and many shore-based residents, were responsible for saving many of the crewmen from the Lake Illawarra. Those in small craft acted alone in very difficult circumstances with falling cement, live wires, and water from a broken pipe above, until the water police arrived on the scene.
A large number of other organisations were involved in the emergency response, including police, ambulance service, fire brigade, Royal Hobart Hospital, Civil Defence, the Hobart Tug Company, Marine Board of Hobart, Public Works Department, Transport Commission, HydroElectric Commission, Hobart Regional Water Board, the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Navy. At 2:30 am, a 14-man Navy Clearance Diving Team flew to Hobart to assist Water Police in the recovery of the vehicles which had driven off the bridge. Two vehicles were identified on 7 January; one was salvaged that day and the second three days later. Another vehicle was found buried under rubble on 8 January.
A comprehensive survey of the wreck of the Lake Illawarra was completed by 13 January. The divers operated in hazardous conditions, with little visibility and strong river currents, contending with bridge debris such as shattered concrete, reinforced steel rods, railings, pipes, lights, wire and power cables. Strong winds on the third day brought down debris from the bridge above, including power cables, endangering the divers working below.
A total of 12 people died in the disaster: seven crew of the MV Lake Illawarra and five motorists.