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Willow Island Disaster

Charleston Gazette
April 28, 1978


Wet Concrete Possible Cause of 51 Workers Falling to Death

By Terry Wimmer
Staff Writer

St. Marys—A concrete wall poured on Wednesday might have caused the collapse Thursday morning of two scaffolds where 51 men were standing, sending them 170 feet to their deaths.

Construction workers at Monongahela Power Co.’s Pleasants Power Plant at nearby Willow Island said the men who died had complained that foremen for the subcontractor, Research-Cottrell, were “pushing” the work and the concrete was “green” or too wet for additional work.

Other theories as to how the accident occurred were passed around Thursday afternoon but the wet concrete theory was cited frequently. However, officers at the construction company were blaming the scaffolds.

At first, Bill Milne, resident construction manager for United Engineering and Construction of Philadelphia, said: “What we are talking about is the scaffold falling, not the top.”

Later, Milne said the concrete wall, called a life, might not have dried but it is a judgment of the project’s foreman to determine if another lift can be added. “They try and plan it to get a lift on a day.”

The tower had 28 lifts on it and workers said it was the 28th lift that might not have dried. Men were working on scaffolds both inside and outside of the huge cooling tower. Shortly after 10 a.m., witnesses said they heard screams and the outside scaffold was sucked up and into the tower.

Lyle Corder, a spokesman for Monongahela Power, said the 29th layer was being poured Thursday morning. “As the 29th was being poured, the 28th disintegrated and the bolts that were holding the scaffolding pulled loose away from it.”

The men fell in a circle as they were standing on the platforms. The bodies were tangled in twisted steel. Work clothes, jackets and hard hats were scattered haphazardly about.

Hours later, rescue workers had removed the bodies and taken them to a morgue in a volunteer fire station at the nearby Pleasants County town of Belmont. Family members came one by one to identify their kin. Outside the building, a crowd of newsmen and bystanders grimaced silently with each shriek and wail.

Company officials said most of the carpenters, laborers, iron workers and electricians who were killed were from the Pleasants County area, and said several had come from out of state to work on the Willow Island project. Forty of the victims had addresses in West Virginia, six were from Ohio and five had Pennsylvania addresses. Fifteen of the victims lived in St. Marys.

In Washington, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said 13 inspections of the site since 1973 revealed “numerous violations, both serious and non-serious.”

Spokesman James Foster said the most recent inspection was a year ago and that the operations of Research-Cottrell of Bound Brook, N. J., never had been inspected.

Several witnesses reported seeing men trying to cling to the the [sic] tower’s top, but Milne said this is untrue. “I heard a noise,” he said, “and I looked out my window, saw a big cloud of dust and it was all over.”

Other witnesses described the noise as a rolling thunder. “The best description that I can give us is that it continued to break loose in a circle more or less like you would peel an apple,” said state police Maj. W. F. Donohoe.

The tragedy is believed to be the worst construction accident in the state’s history.

A spokesman for the International Union of Operating Engineers in Charleston described the scaffolds as a “slip form,” and is continuously moved higher as the tower’s height is increased.

One rescue worker suffered minor injuries when trying to pull bodies out of the twisted debris, authorities said. The injured man’s name wasn’t released.

There are two cooling towers at the Monongahela Power plant. One is completed and the second, where the accident happened, was half-finished. The top half, which measures about 360 feet in diameter, was where the scaffolds were attached.

Milne said a safety net was on the outside of the tower but that it “was sucked inside” with the scaffold. He wouldn’t say whether there was a safety net inside the struc6ture but he did say safety regulations require nets both in and outside.

Only jagged edges of concrete were left at the top of the tower. Chunks of broken concrete littered the ground. John Peppler, a laborer standing on the ground in the middle oft eh tower, said the scaffold wrapped around the inside began peeling away and fell.

“The first thing I heard was concrete falling,” he said. “I had just sent a basket . . . up. I looked over my left shoulder and I could see it falling. I could see people falling through the air and everything falling.”

Peppler said he and four other ground workers ran to the center of the structure. All five escaped injury.

Milne said the project was on schedule and the tower would have been finished by the end of summer. He said work would resume at a later date. “The tower will be finished,” he said.

Outside the building where Milne spoke to reporters, a billboard promoting plant safety conspicuously stood. “They’ll have to take that down,” one worker said.

Thomas Bountane, director of corporate communications for Research-Cottrell, said: “It was a complete mystery how this could happen . . . it’s impossible.”

Gov. Rockefeller extended his sympathy to the families of the 51 victims and said: “Tragedies of this magnitude are difficult to understand and even more difficult to accept.”


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