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The Tasman Bridge Collapse 5th Jan 1975

The annual Trans Derwent swim is part of the schedule of events for the Royal Hobart Regatta which celebrated its 185th year in February 2024.

The swim comprises a 1.5km crossing of the Derwent River from Montagu Bay on the Eastern shore to the Regatta Grounds on the Western shore. The swim provides magnificent views of the Tasman Bridge and Mount Wellington and is believed to be one of the oldest open-water swims in Australia. True to his Brighton Iceberger pedigree, John O’Donoghue was one of a handful of skin swimmers in the event.

The swim was poignant as it provided a close-up view of where the bridge went down on Sunday evening 5th January 1975 when the bulk ore carrier S.S. Lake Illawara rammed into the bridge and brought down pylons 18 and 19 and 127 metres of bridge concrete and steel.

photo by Don Stephens

Two cars were left balancing precariously on the edge of the abyss (top picture). Five motorists and seven seamen lost their lives and Hobart was ripped in two. The Lake Illawara still sits in the mud at the bottom of the Derwent River with its cargo intact.

The photo of John (above) is near where the Lake Illawara now lies. The photo also shows the new beams when the bridge was re-connected and re-opened on 8th October 1977. Pylon 19 was not replaced whilst pylon 18 pierces the bow of Lake Illawara. My neighbour Don Stephens took this dramatic photo (above) on the night of the collapse which was telegraphed around the world.

My later work colleague at the Commonwealth Bank, Murray Ling, drove the FB Falcon station wagon (top picture) and was on the bridge as it went down. He slammed on his brakes to stop his car and was rammed from behind causing his front wheels to lurch over the edge. He climbed out with his family and flagged down other motorists in the blacked-out and still shaking bridge, two swerving around him to drive over the edge into the black water 45 meters below. None of the drivers or their passengers survived the fall. Frank Manley, the driver of the HQ Monaro in the photo (left), later retrieved his car from the edge and was still driving it years after the collapse.

Having experienced this tragedy and its aftermath nearly five decades ago, I paused mid-swim to remember those affected although, given the relative youth of the 70 or so other swimmers, I was probably one of the few who had such a solemn thought process during an otherwise competitive swim.

By Ria Bleathman, (Reproduced from the Brighton Iceberger Newsletter 29 February 2024). Sources: Black & white photos from the Hobart Mercury. At the starting line & iceberger, John O’Donoghue by Ria Bleathman

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