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

Gavin Dennett 19 July 2021 67
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.

This past week 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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67 Responses to Reflections on tragic Royal Canberra Hospital implosion, one of the capital’s darkest days
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

Cherrilee Ann Cherrilee Ann 10:57 am 19 Jul 21

That was so sad.. I was born in that hospital 🏥

Leon Arundell Leon Arundell 8:35 am 19 Jul 21

As I recall, the hospital was not demolished “to make way for the National Museum.” I recall that the future of the site was not decided until several years later.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 10:38 am 20 Jul 21

    The site for the National Museum had already been reserved further around the lake.

Peter Hoffman Peter Hoffman 4:30 am 19 Jul 21

I won't forget. I worked on the implosion. Felt horrible.

Tay Lorraine Tay Lorraine 9:33 pm 18 Jul 21

Chris Barnard Jo Dennis I remember mum telling us about this.

    Jo Dennis Jo Dennis 5:51 am 19 Jul 21

    Tay Lorraine I think of katie Bender everytime I drive past the peninsula .

Craig Sommerville Craig Sommerville 8:34 pm 18 Jul 21

I stopped at Katie Bender’s memorial last week & as usual felt so sad for her & her family. But also angry that the budgie got off without any responsibility. And she’s on another govt sinecure provided by her mates in the party now

    Sue Thurley Sue Thurley 9:00 pm 18 Jul 21

    Craig Sommerville so so true.

    Sue Pitman Sue Pitman 9:09 pm 18 Jul 21

    I still feel shocked that I stopped on Cwth Ave bridge overlooking the hospital with two small children in the backseat just as the radio jockeys announced that there was a slight delay…the police quite rightly shooed us (and many others) away so I was out of eyeshot on Adelaide Avenue when it went off. I didn’t intend to be there at all - I’d driven all of the way from Ultimo in Sydney on my way home to southern Canberra. One of the weirdest and most obviously dangerous few minutes of my life. So sad for the Bender family.

    Sue Thurley Sue Thurley 7:50 am 19 Jul 21

    Sue Pitman I stayed at home that day too

    Mark Oz Mark Oz 9:17 am 19 Jul 21

    Not only did she not take any responsibility, she slinked into the background as soon as it turned to custard. As others have stated Carnell was out there spruiking the upcoming spectacle and issuing an open invitation to all to witness the historic event. Then in the immediate aftermath she referred all queries to the ‘responsible minister’ - who if I’m not mistaken, it was (then) Minister for Urban Services, Trevor Kaine, she threw under the bus.

    Karl Brown Karl Brown 7:36 am 20 Jul 21

    Craig Sommerville if I recall rightly, at the time it was strongly recommended NOT to proceed with an implosion style demolition but they did anyway and then went on to promote it. The whole event should never have happened.

    I was riding dirt bikes that day and was having a break at Mt Ginnini when it heppened. We heard it from there.

Alex Nairn Alex Nairn 6:38 pm 18 Jul 21

I was about 20m from Katie and her family. I had my 2 young daughters there and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Shrapnel landing in the lake and whistling overhead. Heard the screams and knew someone had been hit but quickly whisked my kids away. Saw damage to cars behind where we were standing. Still furious this was promoted as a public spectacle as it could just as easily have been my kids hit. RIP Katie 🌹

Jess Kull Jess Kull 5:36 pm 18 Jul 21

I was only a young girl, but I do clearly remember that tragic moment and the large smoke cloud that blew over the bridge.

Pippa Travers Pippa Travers 5:30 pm 18 Jul 21

24 years ago ?


Wade Bermingham Wade Bermingham 3:49 pm 18 Jul 21

i saw it used fairly recently in a doco on demolition as a what can go wrong and how not to do it

Greg Brill Greg Brill 3:41 pm 18 Jul 21

Sure was

Phil Tarrant Phil Tarrant 2:00 pm 18 Jul 21

I was there, 100 metres from where Katie was standing. We heard a disturbance but had no idea what had happened. When I got home I looked at a couple of digital photos. One of them had what I thought was a row of yacht sails in a line out towards Black Mountain peninsula. But then I noticed that they were not there in another photo take a minute earlier. It was a line of huge splashes.
If that line had been towards the opposite shore, we could have seen dozens killed and injured.
I am very saddened and will never forget Katie’s name, we all learned a lot that day.

Melissa Chandler Melissa Chandler 12:03 pm 18 Jul 21

Chandler Troy remember this we were there too

Trish Casey Trish Casey 11:46 am 18 Jul 21

We where told not to go by an engineer, and glad we didn’t

Mary Corscadden Mary Corscadden 11:20 am 18 Jul 21

Tragic and shameful. It should never ever have been allowed to happen. Thoughts and prayers to Katies family and friends 🙏❤

Michele Don Michele Don 10:51 am 18 Jul 21

RIP Katie Bender ❤️

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