The Severn Bridge Disaster by Paul Barnett

The Severn Bridge Disaster

Paul Barnett

Meeting of 14 July 2016

On 25 October 1960 at 9:45pm, two tankers travelling up the Severn careered into the Severn & Wye Railway Bridge. The tankers were Arkendale H, travelling from Avonmouth and carrying 190 tonnes of tar, and Wastdale H, who set off from Swansea with 200 tonnes of petrol. They followed the blue leading lights (which can still be seen today) up the river.

British Rail owned the bridge at the time, and were undertaking strengthening works. Amazingly, the six workmen survived as they had absconded to the local pub to watch a boxing match on TV! As the workmen were welding, there cannot have been any gas in the mains, so talk of a gas explosion is a local myth; however, the flames from the fuel that the tankers were carrying could be seen 8 miles away and turned the sky orange. Also, the Forest lost its gas supply for quite some time. Another local myth is that the two tankers were tied together; whilst this was illegal, it did happen to save fuel and manpower as only one boat needed to be operating.

Brave rescue attempts were beaten back by wind and flames. The Sharpness harbour master could not open the gates as that would let the burning oil into the docks, so Thomas Carter took a rowing boat and rescued engineer Jack Cooper. Afterwards he headed up to his allotment, leaving his poor wife to hear about the accident and report him missing to the police – who found him asleep in his shed!

The still smouldering wrecks ran aground the next day. A policeman stood on the edge of the bridge for 2 days and 3 nights warning people that it was closed – it was fairly obvious! The accident site could not be inspected for three days; no bodies were found but crew members’ bodies turned up later downstream. Five died.

The bridge had opened in 1879. Keeling was the engineer for The Severn Bridge Railway Company. He had to work out a system of getting the bridge supports in with up to 27 feet of silt to drive through. Whilst the method of pressurising the caissons he developed is still in use today; it was not immediately successful and the bridge moved so much when the first train went over it that he had to go back to the drawing board and fill the caissons with concrete. The bridge had 21 spans of up to 312 feet and cost £280,000; six men died during construction.

After the accident, discussion on whether to repair the bridge went on for seven years. In 1966 demolishment slowly began. The inquiry resulted in VHF radios being required by law, and non-flammable lifejackets.

See the website for more: CS