Remembering ’98

Alex Ford

WREATHS were laid outside the Longford Gas Plants on Friday to mark 20 years since the explosions which claimed two lives and affected many more.

Former operator Jim Ward spoke about his experience on the day, and fighting to be exonerated after he and another worker were blamed for the incident.

“Twenty years ago … myself and every other worker at Longford walked through this gate to start what should have been an entirely normal working day,” he said.

“Through a sequence of unusual events, it turned out to be one of the most memorable and horrific days that those of us that were there endured in our lives.”

The two men who were killed, Peter Wilson and John Lowery, were remembered as “hardworking and loyal workers”.

“(They were) decent men that suffered an indecent death in their workplace through no fault of their own,” Mr Ward said.

“Eight of us were injured, some of us seriously — horrific scars, both mentally and physically, that have been carried now for 20 years.”

Mr Ward also paid respect to the local emergency service crews, who fought the fires for 52 hours, and those who treated the injured at Sale Hospital.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who was a union official at the time, also laid a wreath, and said lives were “irreparably changed”, through the event and its aftermath.

“I’ve seen the footage of the security cameras that day — as people were evacuating.

“There were a series of nine massive explosions just after midday on a Friday, before the grand final in 1998.

“Everyone was evacuating except the operators, the men in orange overalls who were running into harm’s way, as they were trained to do,” he said.

“They got this gas plant up and running in 10 days, and it was like a war scene.

“I’m here 20 years on to honour the memory of the people who died at work, were badly injured, and of course the survivors, unfairly blamed by one of the world’s largest multi-nationals, defended by their union and their community.”

Mr Ward, who later became an occupational health and safety professional for the Australian Workers Union, said there needed to be “substantial changes” to ensure another disaster did not occur.

“It’s been immensely frustrating for me, and I still carry a great deal of concern and worry for certain workplaces in this country,” he said.

“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t contemplate the events of that day and what transpired after it — to drive down Garretts Rd as I did for 20 years as a worker here brought back memories, and not all of them are pleasant.”

For more on the service, and the events of 20 years ago, read Tuesday’s Gippsland Times.