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Member Article: Fire on the Westgate Bridge!

Words and pictures by Nick.

I’ve been using my iso-time wisely to do a little work on my cars and to sort and organise things around the house.

I found my old “car” photo album, full of pictures of cars that I’ve owned in times gone by, and some of the photo’s reminded me of an experience from almost 20 years ago.

I’m almost not here to tell of this story. And I admit, the title does sound like an episode of “Seconds from Disaster” – and it nearly was…

I cast my mind back to early 2001. I’m 21. Still living in Geelong with family but escape to Melbourne most weekends to go out to the Xchange or Market.

I’m excited as I’ve just bought a second-hand car for a few grand, a silver Mitsubishi Magna SE, and I’m happy to have freedom! (Not my first car, but one that I felt comfortable travelling “long” distances in.)

I’d had a nice night out with friends and just dropped the last one of them off. I was often the designated driver, as I had to get back to Geelong at the end of the night.

I fill up the car with petrol as I usually do, at the service station at the bottom of the Westgate bridge (outbound). I pay, and head onto the Westgate going about 80km/h.

As I get about 1/3 of the way up the Westgate bridge, I get the faint smell of smoke in the cabin…next my eyes are drawn to the bonnet of the car…the paint is bubbling.

Soon smoke is pouring into the cabin through the vents…I’ve already crested the top of the bridge.

I put my foot on the brake…it falls lifelessly to the floor…I’m going faster than 80km/h now as I’m now going downhill!

My next decision is make or break – do I crash the car in the guardrail and hope that I don’t spin or flip the car or worse crash through and go off the bridge, or do I gently apply the handbrake?

Remembering something my parents had taught me when I was learning to drive, I chose the latter.

I slowly ease up on the handbrake lever…click…click…click…click…and the car starts slowing down. It comes to a stop about 100 meters short of the Williamstown Road exit.

I grab my wallet and mobile phone and jump out. I hear “GET AWAY FROM YOUR CAR!!!”  (…or words to that effect…)

Workmen who were repairing the road surface on the other side of the bridge came running with a fire extinguisher. “We saw you coming over the bridge…we could see the flames pouring out the bottom of your car!”

They try to put it out, to no avail. Those seconds felt like minutes.

In the distance I can hear sirens. It’s a fire engine, no! two of them.

I really didn’t care that much about the car. I was alive – I just wanted to be sure no-one else got hurt.

The sirens get closer – whew!

But…they’re on the wrong side of the bridge. Coming from Williamstown.

They had to travel all the way over the bridge, under it at Todd Road and then get back over the bridge to get to the car.

Everything from the front bumper, to the backrest of the rear seats burn. The Fire Officers report stated either a fuel or oil leak on the engine manifold.

I still wonder what might have happened had the fire had reached the full fuel tank in the boot…?

Here’s some pics…

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