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

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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.

Yesterday marked 25 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.

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.

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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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A very sad day indeed. I had moved out of town by then so I wasn’t there on that horrible day. Thankfully.

I went to school with Katie and Anna Bender. I will never forget the shock I felt reading she had died.

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.

Milo McMartin7:05 pm 04 Jan 22

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

Milo McMartin7:03 pm 04 Jan 22

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

Leon Arundell8:35 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 Retro10:38 am 20 Jul 21

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

Phil Tarrant2:00 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.

I could be wrong but was it a week or two after this tragedy that the Legislative Assembly brought in a cap ($50K) for payouts for government liabilities?

Thank you for this contribution. I was around 50 metres from where the Bender family were located and quickly got out of there with young family when it all went wrong. I had no idea at the time that anyone had been injured.

I attended because the Government said it would be safe and there was plenty of overseas video showing the technique had been applied successfully.

I recently read Coroner Madden’s report on this episode, and note that none of the key players have achieved much in their lives since, or even before. Clearly a prudent person would not have touched the job.

I also note that this event is taught in Risk Management courses as a classic example of risk management failure.

We should never forget the lessons learnt.

Yes, it happened that way. Thousands and thousands of Canberrans came down to the lake with picnic rugs to watch what was supposed to be an amazing spectacle. You would not want to miss it because the hospital was a large structure on the lake’s edge. The delay, the puffs of smoke, the bangs, the anti-climax when nothing happened, then the massive explosion sending debris in all directions. Plumes of water erupted from the lake around all the small water craft like bombs being dropped. We were so close to something that could have killed hundreds.

It was probably the lowest point in Australian history. The Howard government was in office federally and had cut back much-needed programs and cut a swathe through the public service creating a recession in the ACT, a recession which was hailed by Liberal politicians in their electorates in Queensland and Western Australia as their greatest achievement of which they were immensely proud of.

During that few months in 1997 there were unspeakable tragedies including the Swiss Canyoning disaster, the Thredbo landslide, the Maccabeah games tragedy, the hospital implosion, and then to cap it off the death of Princess Diana a week or so later.

I hope we never have to pass through such a terrible era again.

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