Spanning the Derwent River, the Tasman Bridge links East (dormitory suburbs) and West (Central Business District) Hobart. In the evening of 5th January way back in 1975, a coal freighter - The Lake Illawarra - tried to negotiate this bridge sideways, smashing into two of the supports and causing the roadway above to topple into the dark waters below and onto the freighter which sank - with the loss of 12 lives - 7 on the freighter and 5 in cars that drove over the precipice that loomed in front of them.
I knew this story, of course, as I set out to walk across the bridge. I was living in Canberra at the time working for a government department. What I was not aware of, was the immense impact that this collision and its aftermath had on the citizens of Hobart, then and into the future. As I was walking back across the bridge, I heard the fog horn from an approaching freighter. I was about at the apex at this stage. It was then that I realised that all vehicular traffic had ceased. ALL. Both directions. The road was empty and eerieily quiet. Down the far end of the bridge approach the cars were obediently stopped at the red light. The tug led the freighter through the spans and out the other side. Only when absolutely well and truly clear, did the traffic commence again. I guess it was stopped for about 7 to 10 minutes. About an hour later, I watched from Cenotaph Point as this happened again.
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. One of these cars contained Frank and Sylvia Manley, travelling with two young children in the back seat.
Sylvia: "There were no lights on the bridge. We just thought there was an accident. We slowed down to about 40 km/h and I'm peering out the window. We couldn't see anything but we kept on travelling. The next thing, I said to Frank, "The bridge is gone!" And he just applied the brakes and we just sat there swinging. As we sat there, we couldn’t see anything in the water. All we could see was a big whirlpool of water and apparently the boat was sinking. So with that, we undid the car door and I hopped out."
Frank: "[Sylvia] said “The white line, the white line’s gone. Stop!" I just hit the brakes and I said “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t stop.” And next thing we just hung off the gap...when I swung the door open, I could see, more or less, see the water...and I just swung meself towards the back of the car and grabbed the headrest like that to pull myself around. There's a big automatic transmission pan underneath [the car] - that's what it balanced on."
After a rebuild that took 2.5 years the city was rejoined. To some extent the physical wound was repaired but the mental wound weeps to this day: my experience is proof of that. The hum of traffic recommenced across the Tasman Bridge plying commence around the city and from inter-state as it has done each day of the last 34 years since the collapse. The freighter glided out and down the Derwent into the beginnings of Storm Bay and then out to the Southern Ocean.