ACT News


Katie Bender's family commemorate 20 years since Royal Canberra Hospital implosion

The family of Katie Bender says not a day has gone past in the last 20 years when they have not thought of their beloved 12-year-old daughter and sister who met an horrific death in the Royal Canberra Hospital implosion two decades ago.

They pledged their little girl would always be remembered and always loved.

"Our hearts will always be broken," the family said, in a statement to The Canberra Times.

"We often remember Katie's smile, laughter and joy like it was yesterday. We will never forget the love that she brought to our family. She is missed by her family and friends, now and forever."

Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of that tragic day on July 13, 1997, when 100,000 people gathered on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin to see the Canberra landmark on the Acton peninsula "imploded" to make way for the National Museum of Australia.

The public's attendance was encouraged by the then ACT Liberal Government. Katie was standing more than 400m away from the explosion but killed instantly when she was hit by a piece of flying steel.


Then chief minister Kate Carnell, who was cleared by an inquest of any personal responsibility, reiterated on Wednesday that the hospital implosion was "the worst day of her life" and her sincere sympathies were with the Bender family.

"I often run, cycle, kayak past the memorial to Katie Bender and my heart still goes out to the family. Losing a child is difficult in any circumstance," Ms Carnell said.

However, the family's barrister, Bernard Collaery, a former ACT attorney-general, still seethed with anger, maintaining the Bender family did not get justice.

Mr Collaery said "it should be" the worst day of Ms Carnell's life.

"I'm surprised she didn't retire from public life," he said.

What is for sure is that Katie, then a year seven student at St Clare's College with a love for Croatian folk dancing, would have been a 32-year-old woman today, perhaps with a family of her own, had different decisions been made.

"I'm still amazed that more people were not killed on that day."

Then ACT Fire Brigade member Malcolm Hayes who helped perform CPR

The "insufficiently skilled" explosives contractor Rod McCracken was indicted by the coroner for manslaughter but the charges were later dropped and he was ultimately fined $15,000 for a lesser offence.

Coroner Shane Madden was also critical of the systematic failures around the implosion, criticising regulatory officials, particularly WorkCover safety officers, to government officials with no technical expertise who still took an "unwarranted involvement" in the construction site.

"It is inevitable and regretful that accidents do sometimes occur despite the best precautions but what occurred when Katie Bender was killed was inexcusable," he found, at the time.

On a day billed as festive occasion, when even local radio station MIX 106.3 held a competition in which the winner would push the plunger that triggered the explosion, Katie was standing on a grass nature strip just down from Lennox Gardens with her parents, Zora and Mato, . Seconds after the explosion on that Sunday afternoon, Katie was was killed instantly by a steel fragment sent flying from 430 metres across the lake. It was thought to be travelling at 140km/h.

Malcolm Hayes was on that day a 35-year-old member of the ACT Fire Brigade, stationed with other colleagues, by chance, just 20 to 30 metes away from Katie.

Mr Hayes ended up performing CPR on the little girl, even though it was obvious she had suffered catastrophic injuries, somehow also holding the hand of her mother at the same time as chaos reined around them, people screaming and panicking.

"We weren't doctors but we knew what the outcome was going to be," Mr Hayes, now a station officer with the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, said, on Wednesday.

"We were doing [the CPR] not only for her parents, but for others. There was a massive crowd around us and we tried to do our very best.

"In the end, it was the waste of a beautiful little life."

Traffic was gridlocked on nearby Commonwealth Avenue Bridge with emergency services officers getting out of their vehicles and running on foot to the scene, not knowing how many casualties there would be.

Mr Hayes said most of the shrapnel seemed to have flown over the crowd, lopping off tree limbs and smashing into cars. Fragments lodged into the ground near families and peppered the lake, near spectator craft.

"We didn't know if one person was hurt or 50 people were hurt," Mr Hayes said.

"I'm still amazed that more people were not killed on that day."

Katie's mother passed away in 2015. Her father and three siblings plan to remember Katie at her memorial by the lake on Thursday.

Ms Carnell, now Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, said on Wednesday the loss of Katie was "a dreadful accident".

"You always think about what you might have done differently. I still don't actually know, really," she said.

"But for all of that, it was a dreadful day and I remember every single minute of it, including going to see the Benders afterwards. I know for them, and for others who were involved, [Thursday] will be a dreadful day."

Ms Carnell said she understood the implosion was a part of Canberra's history and she would be always be inextricably linked to it, despite not having any personal responsibility for it.

She accepted she would be the person who was always asked for a response to the disaster.

"I was the chief minister, at the end of the day, and the buck stops, there's no doubt about that," she said.

"It's absolutely true I don't know much about imploding buildings and so the inquiry found. But at the end of the day, you take responsibility. You're in the chair. The inquiry found I wasn't involved in any misadventure but you're in the chair. The buck stops."

The coroner said there was no evidence of that Ms Carnell personally or directly contributed to the death of Katie Bender but there was no doubt the project, at all levels, could have been conducted in " a more professional manner".

"There were systemic failures. The intrusions from the various sources outside the actual project site were unwarranted whilst the absence of the relevant Government regulatory agencies in monitoring the demolition progress on a constant basis is a matter for significant concern," he found.

Mr Collaery said the coronial inquest had been the "most unsatisfactory" inquiry he had been involved in.

He also represented families in the Thredbo landslide disaster which would occur just 17 days after the hospital implosion.

"July 1997 was an extraordinary month. There was the hospital implosion and the Thredbo landslide so my law practice was working with highly-traumatised families and it was six months of grieving families in our law practice who wanted answers," he said.

"The Bender family believed it was a legitimate public spectacle and like tens of thousands Canberrans went for the public spectacle.

"The Canberra hospital stood on an open peninsula. Implosions are for the dropping of buildings on their footprint in urban surroundings. This was never, ever an appropriate site for an implosion. It was on open ground. This was a spectacle that should never have occurred."

Mr Collaery said the loss of Katie had been "catastrophic" for her family.

"It was one of the worst, if not the worst, inquest tragedies I've done in my career," he said.

"Nothing could be worse than having a child killed in such an horrific manner. Nothing could be worse."