BEST OF 2021: Reflections on tragic Royal Canberra Hospital implosion, one of the capital’s darkest days

Gavin Dennett 78
Empty Royal Canberra Hospital in 1997

The empty shell of Royal Canberra Hospital at dusk, just two days before the tragic failed implosion in July 1997. Photo: Gavin Dennett.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2021. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2021. Today, Gavin Dennett remembers a dark day in Canberra’s history.

July 2021 marked 24 years since the tragedy of the failed Royal Canberra Hospital implosion, one of the darkest days in the ACT’s history.

On 13 July 1997, the former hospital at Acton Peninsula was demolished to make way for the National Museum of Australia. The lead-up to the event was celebrated by the Canberra community, with the ACT Government promoting it as a public spectacle and encouraging everyone to attend to watch the bricks and mortar pulverised into dust.

A local radio station held a competition to push the plunger to bring down the building by implosion. The carnival atmosphere at Lake Burley Griffin foreshore on the sunny winter’s day belied the catastrophe that would unfold.

Instead of bringing down the former hospital onto itself, the incorrectly placed explosive devices – undertaken by a company that was hopelessly lacking in technical expertise – detonated outwards, sending metal projectiles towards the lake, the crowd and beyond.

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Tragically, 12-year-old Katie Bender, who was in attendance with her family, was fatally struck in the head and killed instantly. Nine other people were injured and many reported frightening near-misses.

I was among the crowd of more than 100,000 people who lined Lake Burley Griffin foreshore that day. Like many Canberrans of our generation, both my sister, Julie, and I were born at Royal Canberra Hospital, so we took a keen interest in the farewell spectacle.

Since being born there in the mid-1970s, I was fortunate to have had few reasons to return. My only other experience at the hospital was in February 1991 when I was taken to emergency after suffering an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. The facility closed just nine months later, in November 1991.

Empty Royal Canberra Hospital and Lake Burley Griffin in 1997

The view of the empty Royal Canberra Hospital from across Lake Burley Griffin two days before it was demolished by implosion in 1997. Photo: Gavin Dennett.

In 1994, I had a mate who, for a short while, rented a room at Sylvia Hurley House, the dilapidated former nurses’ quarters that stood adjacent to the hospital and was demolished at the same time. I visited him one chilly evening and the creaking, virtually abandoned dormitory building with long empty hallways was eerily quiet and downright spooky.

My only other experience on the peninsula was just two days before the implosion when I drove there to view the empty hospital shell as it awaited its demise. I snapped some photos in the fading light with my cheap, wind-up camera that turned out pretty poor but show the gutted building with a banner attached for Controlled Blasting Services, the Gold Coast-based company responsible for the failed implosion.

By the time Julie and I arrived at Lake Burley Griffin on 13 July 1997, the crowd was already bustling. We found a spot at Lennox Gardens, west of Commonwealth Avenue, and hovered there for a while.

The implosion was still an hour away so we ended up moving further south along the foreshore until we settled on a spot slightly further from the hospital but offering a better view.

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From there, we waited while the sense of anticipation grew, thanks largely to the onsite radio broadcast that added to the convivial atmosphere. Then when showtime arrived, the countdown was on, followed by the pushing of the plunger, detonation and three plumes of smoke … and the hospital was still standing.

This should have been a warning that all was not well.

After the initial anticlimactic blast, the puzzled crowd waited before further explosions saw the building come down. However, metal shards and other debris rained down into the lake that was packed with spectator boats and kayaks.

We witnessed the occupants of one kayak overturn it to escape the deadly projectiles.

While that seemed unexpected, and we generally thought the experience hadn’t exactly gone to plan, we weren’t prepared for what came next.

Katie Bender Memorial at Lake Burley Griffin

The Katie Bender Memorial at the site where the 12-year-old was killed during the failed implosion of Royal Canberra Hospital. Photo: File.

On our way back to the car, we walked past the site where we had originally perched. It was where Katie Bender had been standing with her family – 430 metres from the blast – when she was hit by metal shrapnel travelling at 130 metres per second.

There was chaos as police marshalled the crowd away from the area and cordoned it off with barricades.

We soon learnt of the tragedy that had unfolded and were shaken by our close call and fateful decision to relocate.

Sadly for Katie, her family and those around her who witnessed her horrifyingly shocking death, they were not so fortunate. Given there were nine other people injured and many reports of lucky escapes, it’s a miracle the number of fatalities wasn’t higher.

Considering metal projectiles ripped through trees, cars and were found as far away as the Treasury building, 1 km away – having sailed over four lanes of gridlocked traffic to get there – it defies belief the safety exclusion zone around the hospital was a paltry 20 metres.

What happened to Katie could have happened to anyone.

My one-in-100,000 experience of the day was by no means unique, but reflecting on the Sliding Doors moment that saw us positioned away from where disaster struck, remains a sobering thought nearly a quarter of a century later.

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78 Responses to BEST OF 2021: Reflections on tragic Royal Canberra Hospital implosion, one of the capital’s darkest days
Michael Wilson Michael Wilson 12:40 pm 06 Jan 22

I was with my Dad, right on the lake wall after staking out a position very early in the day. We were both testing our new 35mm cameras with motor drives at 4 frames per second. Our photos were used for the inquest. I don't remember getting them back, but we really didn't want them back. Although we were surprised that pieces of shrapnel were dropping into the lake between our vantage point and some of the boats full of spectators, we didn't realise there had been injuries until we returned to our car parking spot at the Treasury building. Fire engines started moving through the crowds with sirens blaring. We saw a car in the Treasury carpark with a large diameter, 50cm long fragment of metal piping sitting on the back seat after smashing through the rear window. Later, we worked out that the Bender family had been standing well behind us on the foreshore. An awful, awful day.

    Jonathan Medwin Jonathan Medwin 5:33 pm 07 Jan 22

    Michael Wilson Extraordinary day. I was very, very shocked when Katie Bender's death hit the news. Bread and circuses.

    Michael Wilson Michael Wilson 6:06 pm 07 Jan 22

    And at the time most native adult Canberrans would have been born in that hospital. I was, and of course many of your family also. We were expecting to experience spectacle and sentimentality, not horrible tragedy.

bigred bigred 9:26 pm 05 Jan 22

I was very close (maybe 20-30 metres) to where the Bender family had located themselves, with my daughter on my shoulders. I actually had no idea of the trauma the shonky demolition had caused, until a bit later.

I recently had a read of the coronial documents. A real eye opener in how to butt cover for incompetence, by claiming to be a nincompoop. Some of those who should have been held to account are still plying their trade in the ACT.

Zarko Rychevski Zarko Rychevski 8:00 pm 05 Jan 22

RIP Katie🇲🇰🇭🇷

Nomes Camilleri Nomes Camilleri 7:44 pm 05 Jan 22

RIP Katie Bender a beautiful young girl who lost her life on this day.

Deanne Peereboom Deanne Peereboom 7:27 am 05 Jan 22

I worked at the Commonwealth bank sub branch for 3 years in the 1980’s. Great place to work.

Amy Louise Peacock Amy Louise Peacock 5:57 am 05 Jan 22

Jen Harkness Daniel Agustin there you go 24 years! We were just talking about this the other day 😢

Kylie Emery Kylie Emery 11:36 pm 04 Jan 22

RIP little Katie 💔 very sad day. My little brother was born, spent a massive amount of his 14 years there, and passed away in that hospital 😢 One of the saddest, most tragic days in Canberra

Jonathan Nicholl Jonathan Nicholl 10:17 pm 04 Jan 22

I remember it like yesterday. Horrific

Michele Don Michele Don 10:16 pm 04 Jan 22

Always in our thoughts, Katie Bender ❤️

Julianne McMillan Julianne McMillan 9:38 pm 04 Jan 22

I worked there in early '80's. Fond memories of great nursing colleagues.

Maree Commens Maree Commens 9:02 pm 04 Jan 22

A very sad day and huge loss for Canberra

Angela Thomas Angela Thomas 8:56 pm 04 Jan 22

Gosh 24 years, time flies.

Rodney Weber Rodney Weber 7:08 pm 04 Jan 22

A very very sad day and there absolutely should be a well considered ceremony in July 2022 to remember this tragedy

Milo McMartin Milo McMartin 7:05 pm 04 Jan 22

We were there. No words can adequately express the devastation.

Milo McMartin Milo McMartin 7:03 pm 04 Jan 22

We were there that day and will never forget what happened. Thank you for your article.

Michael Ilsley Michael Ilsley 4:33 pm 04 Jan 22

Much more use to the public having it their today.

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 8:33 pm 20 Jul 21

Whenever I see Carnell on television, I think, Canberrans have got long memories. I was in Lyneham on the day; we heard the so of the explosion.

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 6:48 pm 20 Jul 21

My colleague and i were standing right next to and in front of Katie. The metal piece that struck her wizzed past me with the force that sucked my jacket. My colleague suffered from contact with body material after. I'll never forget that sight. We were on our lunch break to watch it from our work in Pathology in Canberra Hospital. The photos i took were used by Canberra Times and the Coroner. I soon after had to take stress leave, as the Thredbo landslide disaster which also required Pathologys help compounded my implosion experience further. I took leave where i met my now wife and the rest is history. Ironically, i ended up working at WorkCover where my new colleagues told me of how the Government of the time bullied the Safety Inspectors into hushing up about the lack of safety precautions. I was NEVER offered compensation for what I witnessed, nor my colleague, nor my neighbour Jim, the fireman who tried saving Katies life. The great cover up has blood on the Governments hands to this day.

Peter Kloska Peter Kloska 3:38 pm 19 Jul 21

Very sad anniversary. Most importantly it was not an implosion, rather an explosion. Guardian Angels were flat out on that day. A miracle that it wasn’t a massacre. Too much for show ,too little care for safety. IT SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN DEMOLISHED! I watched from behind the Hyatt near the lake. My mum and I were one of the few not cheering afterward. That hospital was pivotal for many Canberrans and one of few buildings around the lake that wasn’t federal. Sad sad memories to this day. RIP Katie Bender 😢

Angela Cocuzzoli Angela Cocuzzoli 11:19 am 19 Jul 21

I had many surgerys there

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