Willow Island Disaster

St. Marys Oracle
May 4, 1978

County in Mourning After Loss of 51 in Power Plant Tragedy

By Sheri Fleegle

Pleasants County began Saturday to bury the men who died last Thursday in the collapse of a work scaffold at Pleasants Power Station.

Friends of the families who lost loved ones paid their final respects at churches throughout the county and at the Pleasants County Middle School where services were held for five members of one family.

The 51 men were working on the construction of cooling tower No. 2 at Pleasants Power Station around 10:00 a.m. Thursday when the scaffolding and one lift of concrete fell to the floor of the tower 170 feet below. Most of the workers were on the scaffold inside the hyperbolic shaped structure when the 28th lift of concrete began to "peel" away. Several workers on the ground were buried by the falling debris, according to witnesses' accounts.

All construction workers on the scaffold were killed in the fall. The only survivors within the tower were seven men at various ground-level tasks.

Witnesses described the accident as "Sounding like a train derailment" and happening "in a matter of 30 seconds."

One workman at the base of the fatal tower was facing the north rim when he saw a section of the top ring of concrete let go. He then said the concrete began to "peel" around the tower in both directions, meeting almost directly over where he had been working.

Of the 51 victims, 16 were residents of Pleasants County and two lived in neighboring Newport.

Among the dead were Pleasants' County residents James Blouir, Robert Blouir, Steve Blouir, Thomas Cross, Claude Hendrickson, Randy Lowther, Howard McBrayer Jr., Chet Payne, Glen Satterfield, Emmett Steele, Earnest Steele, Gale Steele, Miles Steele, Ronald Steele, Fred Pride Jr. and Brian Taylor. Dan Hensler and Jackie Westfall of Newport were also victims of the disaster.

The tower was the second one to be constructed at the plant by Research-Cottrell, a New Jersey based firm. The first unit of Allegheny Power System's $677 million station was scheduled to go on line next year.

Men responded from all parts of the plan to begin rescue operations. St. Marys Emergency Squad was the first to arrive on the scene with all three of its units and 24 trained personnel. Squad members Richard McCullough and harry Morgan borrowed a truck from Quaker State to pick up all additional equipment the county had available.

Emergency units also responded from neighboring Tyler, Wetzel and Wood counties and Newport and New Matamoras, O.

Rescue operations continued until shortly after noon when the last of the victims was removed to the makeshift morgue set up in the Belmont Fire Station. State police worked with sheriffs and deputies in maintaining traffic at the accident site and keeping tight security around the plant.

It was late afternoon when families began the slow, agonizing process of identifying their dead. With the help of emergency medical personnel, state police, Red Cross workers and clergymen, families were led one by one from the Belmont United Methodist Church to the morgue site across the street. The last body was identified and removed to a funeral home after 10:00 p.m. that day.

Throughout the day, Pleasants Countians gave their all to help their friends and neighbors. Doctors Michael Lewis, Richard Hamilton and E. E. Maxon, along with a group of Colin Anderson Center and area nurses, worked at the Belmont site until well into the night aiding grief-stricken relatives. Squad personnel assisted state police and the medical examiner in the slow process of identifying the dead.

Many Belmont and St. Marys area residents provided whatever services they could, from comforting relatives to keeping coffee and sandwiches in constant supply. Some even handled the task of preparing death certificates for men they had known for years.

In addition to the support of friends, the families of the deceased had the comfort and prayers of area ministers who also assisted at the scene. These same ministers were joined by other members of the clergy across the national on Sunday in memorial services for the dead men and praying for the remaining members of their families.

Belmont mayor Bob Doty, who remained at the morgue site throughout the day, praised the work of those who helped.

"The cooperation of the people here has been great, just magnificent," said Doty.

No work was conducted at the plant Friday, men only arrived to pick up their paychecks. Some men have said they will not return to work at the plant at all, others have wagered that the company will have a difficult time completing the tower and getting men to go back up on it.

Monday, those workers who would return to the site did so amid what was descried as an "eerie" atmosphere. One man said the crews worked together in complete silence and he himself found it hard to work where he could look up at any time and see the tower.

Following what was described as the "worst non-coal related industrial disaster in the history of Wet Virginia," Gov. Jay Rockefeller joined St. Marys Mayor Arthur Olds and Belmont Mayor Robert Doty in declaring last Sunday as a day of mourning the 51 men who perished at Pleasants Power Station.

An hour-long service for the five immediate members of the Lee Steele family was held Sunday at the Pleasants County Middle School with more than 2,000 persons extending their sympathies to the famalies of the men.

The Rev. Amos McVey in one service described the Steele family as "good men." He spoke briefly and many of those attending the funeral also went to the Willow Island cemetery where the five were interred.

Individual services were scheduled for other victims through Wednesday of this week.

Prior to the Sunday funerals of the five Steeles, the family received calls from President and Mrs. Carter and Gov. Rockefeller expressing their deepest sympathies for their tragic loss. Senator Robert C. Byrd also extended his condolences through Mayor Olds to those who lost family members in Thursday's tragedy.

Even as the funerals of the victims are being held around the area, investigatory teams from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Research-Cottrell are searching the wreckage of the scaffolding system and concrete debris for clues to the cause of last week's accident.

Why? OSHA Asks

Last week's rain may have been a factor in showing the normal curing process of concrete poured in the top of cooling tower number two at Pleasants Power Station where 51 men died in the collapse of a scaffold Thursday, federal investigators have said.

According to David H. Rhone, head of the accident investigation for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), rain "certainly" could slow the curing process. He spoke at a press conference in Parkersburg, Friday.

Rhone also said officials are "concerned about the strength of the concrete."

"We have been unable to recover sufficient samples on the ground from the level" where the accident occurred, he said, adding that more samplings were being attempted.

An official of the West Virginia Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, said Sunday one rescue worker told him pieces of concrete crumbled in his hands.

Rhone, in an interview Sunday, said, "It could be a combination of these factors: stress, mechanical failure and the strength of concrete."

The OSHA probe, which began a few hours after the accident, continued through the weekend at the tower. Workers on the construction job and witnesses to this scaffold collapse are being interviewed, according to Jack Hord, OSHA information director.

Federal government tests of the tower's concrete will be included in the most intense investigation in the six-year history of OSHA, according to Dr. Eula Bingham, head of OSHA who also participated in the press conference.

OSHA investigators also are looking at the design of the scaffold and the equipment used in hoist the scaffold each time work was completed on five-foot high lifts of concrete on the tower. Investigators have no indication of worker negligence, Dr. Bingham pointed out.

A report on the OSHA analysis may be ready within two to five weeks.

One hindrance to the investigation is that OSHA has been unable to locate some eyewitnesses to the collapse.

"Some of the people, we don't know where they are," said Rhone. "Some of the people, we have been able to get in touch with them."

"It's extremely difficult when there are no survivors from the area where the collapse occurred," Rhone pointed out, "but we feel that with all of the information that we have collected, we can reconstruct the conditions which existed immediately prior to the accident."

Since the accident, workers have been speculating that the concrete supporting the scaffold was still wet Thursday morning.

"Anything is a possibility," said Dennis Carlton-Jones, president of Research-Cottrell, the New Jersey-based firm that holds a subcontract for construction of the $12 million twin water cooling towers.

No one knows the cause, he added during a company press conference Friday at the power plant site.

Carlton-Jones did not rule out the possibility that the concrete was "green." He also said that Research-Cottrell had stopped work on three other similar towers being built around the country until the cause of Thursday's accident is known.

Company officials have pointed out there was nothing different about this week's work on the 170-foot tower than during the construction of 36 similar towers Research-Cottrell has built.

Carlton-Jones said the same patented technique and the same type of scaffolding was used at the Pleasants Power Station No. 2 cooling tower that has been used safely for seven years.

"With this background and experience the collapse that took place yesterday (Thursday) morning is all the more difficult to understand and its cause will not be easy to determine," Carlton-Jones said.

Research-Cottrell has "an excellent safety record," according to Basil Whiting, an assistant to the OSHA head. Whiting added that there is no indication that the procedure used to build the tower is unsafe.

OSHA has made 14 inspections at the Pleasants Power Station work site, Rhone said. None of those inspections involved worked by Research-Cottrell, he added.

Four persons have died on the construction site, he said. None of them were on either of the two cooling towers and inspections followed each of the fatalities.

Two worker-related complaints prompted a pair of other plant site inspections, Rhone added, again stating that none of the complaints involved work on the towers.

In all, contractors other than Research-Cottrell have been fined $5,340 for safety violations at the Pleasants Power Station, Rhone said. Research-Cottrell has not been fined or cited for violations.

All OSHA records on any Research-Cottrell project have been ordered to Dr. Bingham's office in Washington, D. C., for review.

Carlton-Jones said the workers were pouring the 29th ring of concrete of the tower Thursday. He said the 28th ring had been poured by 3:30 the previous afternoon and the scaffolding was secured to the 2th ring, which was 48 hours old.

He described the apparatus as a floating scaffold which ringed the tower. It was moved upwards each day by hydraulic lifts as a new ring was laid.

The 28th ring and what had been poured on the 29th fell with the scaffold, protective net and men, said Carlton-Jones.

"This scaffolding system has been inspected by OSHA at three sites over the past 12 months and in no case did we receive unfavorable comments with respect to its overall safety and integrity," said Carlton-Jones.

Research-Cottrell has brought numerous experts to examine the tower in a probe separate from that of OSHA. Carlton-Jones will personally oversee that investigation.

Gov. Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Rep. Robert Mollohan visited the site Friday afternoon. Both men said there was little they could do for the investigation, but they wanted to see what OSHA had found so far.

Senator Jennings Randolph had scheduled an inspection and conference with OSHA officials at the plan Sunday afternoon but delayed the visit after designation of Sunday as a day of mourning. After attending a memorial service for the victims and their families in Clarksburg, Sen. Randolph advised that the labor sub-committee of the Senate Human Resources Committee would be holding hearings to determine the cause for the tragedy. He reported that a committee staff member had been at the plant site Friday and Saturday.

In addition to the federal and company inspectors, insurance men also swarmed the site.

"I couldn't begin to guess the number of insurance personnel on the site," said R. S. Millne, resident project manager.

OSHA official Whiting said Friday that the last time and OSHA inspection was held at the plant was in April of 1977. OSHA's Whiting said that length of time is "not unusual."

"It's a problem of resources," he said.

OSHA has 1,500 inspectors to look at five million work places.

'I've Never Seen Anything Like It' Witness Describes Scene of Tragedy

By Sheri Fleegle

"Construction workers are a pretty tough bunch of guys, but the looks on some of their faces . . . well, I've never seen anything like it."

That feeling was expressed by Phil Corvino of United Engineering and Construction after Thursday morning's tragedy at Pleasants Power Station claimed the lives of 51 men.

Corvino said the first anyone in the other parts of the job knew of the accident was when a message came over the loudspeaker requesting all available help at cooling tower number 2. Men in the immediate area, many of whom saw the scaffolding fall, were at the scene instantly, hunting for their co-workers and friends.

Tony Galkus, an electrician from Baltimore, Md., said he was in a trailer near the tower when he heard the noise. He and other men in the trailer rushed out to help, but Galkus said when he saw the debris, he was afraid of what they might find.

Another worker in the area said he ran inside the tower to offer help and then began to wonder if the rest of the structure would come down.

Men responded from all parts of the job site to offer their assistance in rescue operations and at one point, so many men were trying to help, they were getting in each other's way. Some began pulling at the steel and concrete with their hands and, according to Galkus, moving the debris with strength he had no believed possible.

Sam Smith of Newport, an operating engineer, was getting ready to move some heavy equipment at the southernmost end of the plant when he heard the call for help. Smith took a truck with a cutting torch to the scene, but was unable to use it immediately because of the possibility of leaking acetylene in the area. Cutting torches were used later in the rescue operations along with cranes and cherry pickers.

"I didn't realize how much weight there was up there," Smith said, "until it was down there."

When he saw what had actually happened, Smith said he knew no one could be alive. He worked until nearly noon before he left for home.

"When I walked out, I had already seen enough," Smith said grimly. "It was a hell of a sight and I don't want to see anything like it again."

George Pepper was 50 feet away from the tower when the men fell. "I heard a sound like a train derailment, turned and looked up at the tower. But the only thing I saw aw a pile of dust," he recalled.

"I heard the sound of steel plugs coming out and the top two layers of blocks and mortar started falling like dominoes," one worker said.

Another worker, John Peppler, 38, a laborer from Murphytown, was working on the ground below. He remembered, "The first thing I heard was concrete falling. I had just sent a basket of it up. I looked over my left should and I could see it falling. I could see people falling through the air and everything falling."

Peppler said he jumped under a truck ramp inside the tower and four other workers ran to the center avoiding the crumbling debris.

An operating engineer was in a hoist shanty on the south side of the tower when the accident occurred. The man was waiting to hoist his bucket of concrete to the tower top when he saw a "30- or 40-foot" section of concrete directly across from him break away from the tower. At first, the man said he thought that was all that would happen. Then, within a matter of 30 seconds, the 28th lift of concrete and the scaffold holding the men began to peel around the tower from both directions, meeting almost directly over the operator's position.

"I've never experienced anything like this," the man commented. "A lot of my friends I had worked with before were involved." He also said that although he has been in construction for about 30 years, this was the first tower of this kind he had worked on.

When the dust had settled, the man left the safety of his shanty and did what he could to help his fellow workmen.

The operator also said he would most likely return to work at the plant when the company called the crew back after the investigations.

Laborer Bill Hess of Sistersville was working on another scaffold in the waste batch house when he heard the message for help.

"Everybody took off running. There must have been thousands of men running to the cooling tower."

When he arrived at the accident, Hess said, "There was so much stuff there on the ground that you couldn't see the bodies. There wasn't a sound coming from it."

The workers registered on the job that morning by dropping tokens into a box. Most of the victims were identified by co-workers by the tokens.

A worker at the temporary morgue site later commented, "No one can tell how long it will take for the town to forget this."


West Virginia Archives and History