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21 July 2021
The entire July 21, 2021 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!
By Dean Lawson
Horsham’s State Government Offices building in McLachlan Street continues
to dominate the Wimmera city’s skyline.
Article continues below
A quintessential example of architectural style in the 1960s and ’70s and sitting in Horsham’s heart, its five storeys means it remains one of Horsham’s highest buildings.
Fifty years ago, on Saturday, July 17, 1971, the building captured considerably more attention – but for all the wrong reasons.
The building, only 18 months old at the time, infamously provided Horsham with a dramatic fire, complete with three explosions that littered nearby streets with glass and a frantic emergency-service response.
Many people needed treatment for cuts, bruises and shock and people across the city, some who had heard the explosions more than two kilometres away, were on edge.
People at next-door Horsham Telephone Exchange and post office and nearby shops found themselves on the fringe of the drama.
History tells us the fire started in air-conditioning ducts as the result of a build-up and ignition of gas generated from an after-hours Public Works Department project.
The incident happened on a Saturday, when the building, which on work days usually housed about 150 employees from 12 State Government departments, was closed.
Horsham’s Peter Creek, a young reserve firefighter at the time, said it was the biggest fire he had seen in Horsham.
“My wife had sent me down the street to get parts for a pram and I didn’t return,” he said.
“I got to the street and heard the siren and in those days firemen followed the fire truck to wherever it was going.
“When we arrived it was a chaotic scene. There was glass all over the roads, windows blown out. There was smoke and fire coming from the top of the building.
“We ended up having to break in and go right through the premises, and it was a pretty hot.
“Thank goodness the offices were closed. With the explosions that happened the devastation was tremendous in the top floors.
“I remember getting up into one of the top floors and it was very eerie. In those days they had green telephones sitting on desks and you could see where the phones had been but they had melted and had all run down the sides of the desks.
“It happened just on lunchtime and we were still mopping up after dark. One of the jobs we had to do was cut holes in air-conditioning ducts. As soon as we did all the air was sucked in and it all roared up again and we had to pour water throughout the building.”
Mr Creek, who had to go to hospital with concussion after being hit by falling light fittings, said people had various injuries, mainly from cuts from flying glass.
“Everyone was pretty tired and we had to get in and do some mopping up on the top floor. I was going up the stairwell and someone called out to ‘look-out below’ as some lights broke loose. They caught me across the face and cut up my nose. We had to keep going and I was on one of the parapets and a couple of others said I didn’t look too well and I ended up in hospital.
“I remember John Walsh had a severely cut hand. After the first explosion glass started to fly and while running John put his hand up behind his head and it was hit with a great slither of glass. Ray Duffield also got glass in the back of his neck.”
Records show six firefighters were injured while tackling the blaze, which proved difficult because brigade ladders were not long enough.
A State Electricity Commission cherry picker helped in getting water to the higher levels.
“It was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it,” Mr Creek said.
“One of the big concrete piers through the centre looked as though a beaver had eaten all around it where bits had fallen out. But it was structurally still sound.”
Mr Creek said explosions had blown out windows at Patersons, now Cheeky Fox Cafe, and several other businesses past the TAG buildings.
Reports from others at the time include descriptions of the building ‘heaving’ or ‘shaking’ with the force of the explosions.
Minister for Public Works Murray Porter opened the State Government Offices in February, 1970.