The four men who tragically died while working on the Severn Bridge

By Elizabeth Thomas

A memorial plaque to commemorate four men who lost their lives while working on the Severn Bridge has been erected.

John Short, Eric Sullivan, Robin Phelps and Kevin Hoskins died in three separate industrial accidents during a major programme of works on the iconic bridge between 1989 and 1991.

Retired construction manager, Pete Neale, knew three of the men and helped co-ordinate the rescue at at the time.

Read more: The unseen pictures showing the construction of the Second Severn Crossing

"To have worked with three of these men at the time and have coordinated the rescue when the gantry fell, I have always felt a personal attachment," Peter said.

"There was little we could do for the men that were working on the gantry at the time, although the SARA lifeboat did amazingly pluck one man from the river."

Plans were completed for a major strengthening of the bridge in the late 1980s, and in 1986 a contract was awarded to John Laing Construction to carry out the works with Flint and Neil Partnership as the Design Consultant. The extensive works were carried out over a period of years.

While carrying out the project, three men lost their lives. In the year that it was completed, a fourth man lost his life while carrying out work a separate project.

John Short (far left) tragically fell during work to replace a lift in one of the towers (Family handout)

John Cornelius Short was part of a team of steel erectors who were working in the Beachley Downstream tower installing temporary platforms in advance of the steel tube erection.

John - or Shorty as he was known to his friends - tragically fell during work to replace a lift in one of the towers on January 18 1989. He was 42 when he died.

From Caldicot in Monmouthshire, John was well known in the area, playing for Caldicot RFC. Following his death, a memorial match was arranged in his honour, with a number of Welsh Internationals playing in the teams. Several hundred people turned up to watch the match.

Eric Alan Sullivan (pictured), along with Robin Phelps and another man, was in a maintenance gantry when it fell into the river on 4 September 1990 (Family handout)

Robin Chester Phelps, 43, from Brockweir, Gloucestershire, and 46-year-old Eric Alan Sullivan, from Tintern, Monmouthshire, were in a maintenance gantry on the underside of the bridge deck when it fell into the river on 4 September 1990. Another man on the gantry at the time survived the 165ft fall.

On September 4, 1990, a team of painters and an inspector were working on behalf of Avon County Council, the bridge maintenance organisation, from one of the new gantries.

An experienced inspection technician, Eric had worked both throughout the UK and overseas, and had enjoyed a particular contract with his family in Zambia prior to starting work on the bridge. He left a wife and two young boys.

Kevin John Hoskins lost his life in an incident in one of the towers on the Aust side on 27 November 1991 (Family handout)

Kevin John Hoskins, 34, from Patchway, Bristol, lost his life in an incident in one of the towers on the Aust side on 27 November 1991.

He had started work in the Aust Upstream Tower just three days previously. Kevin left seven children, with the youngest being just 10 months old at the time of the incident.

A dedication ceremony to reveal a new plaque honouring the men was carried out on September 10.

Peter Neale came up with the idea as a way to remember the four men who lost their lives working on the bridge.

"I am so pleased the memorial plaque is now installed and formerly dedicated and I thank National Highways and the John Laing Charitable Trust for supporting, what I consider is good way to remember these men," Peter said.

"The plaque not only commemorates the men, but I believe it will be a focus for the families and friends of the men and I also hope it acts as a point of closure for them."

Monmouth MP David Davies and Peter Neale (right) who organised the installation of a plaque.' (Peter Neale)

The plaque sits alongside an original plaque erected in 1966 for the six men that lost their lives during the original construction of the bridge.

It sits on the Aust side of the bridge but while it has been up since last year, the pandemic had delayed its official dedication to this month.

Family, friends and former colleagues of the men were in attendance at the service. The ceremony was led by the Rev Phillip Avery, St Mary Priory Chepstow.

Among the attendees at the ceremony was Wales Office Minister and Monmouth MP David TC Davies.

He said: “The Severn Bridge remains a vital link between Wales and England and a significant piece of our national infrastructure.

“We owe our gratitude to those who undertook the sometimes dangerous work of building and maintaining it and it is important that the four men who died working on the bridge are remembered.”

Peter told WalesOnline: "It was heart warming to see the children of the men at the ceremony, they would have been young teenagers who may have struggled to understand the loss of their father, but now are fine young adults who perhaps have a better understanding and that they are not alone in remembering their fathers.

"Perhaps your readers might think of the real price of construction of this iconic structure being the unifying link between England and Wales and of the men and women that daily work on both the Severn Bridge M48 and Prince of Wales Bridge M4 maintaining these vital links.

"Safety in construction remains a potentially dangerous industry but with the controls, standards and culture today it is rare to have to report events like these.

"It was only a few years after the gantry incident that another gantry fell from the Avonmouth Bridge M5 in 1994 with loss of another four lives and in the week the plaque was erected in 2020 a further four lives were lost in Avonmouth when the waste water tank they were working on exploded.

"Since the introduction of the Construction Design and Management Regulations in 1994 part of a European Directive, safety in Construction has seen a major shift and improvement in the industry. My fear is that it is weakened in the post-Brexit review that is underway today."

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