Source: New York Times Online, April 30, 2004
By: Eric Lipton
Intentional disregard or plain indifference by one of the main subcontractors at the Tropicana Casino and Resort expansion project, as well as serious violations by three other companies, caused the death of four workers and the injury of 20 others when the garage they were erecting collapsed last October, federal investigators concluded yesterday.
The findings, which leave open the possibility that criminal charges could be filed against Fabi Construction Inc. of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., are based on a conclusion that critical reinforcing steel that was supposed to hold up the garage floors Fabi was building were not sufficiently anchored into columns where the collapse occurred.
The investigators also determined that Fabi had failed to install adequate temporary supports for the floors, which support them until the concrete dries and hardens. And the contractors, the investigators determined, ignored warnings from workers who had pointed out cracks that clearly suggested a dangerous construction flaw.
”It was Engineering 101,” said Gary W. Roskoski, area director of the United States Department of Labor’s regional office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which conducted the six-month investigation into the accident.
Fabi was fined $98,500 for what OSHA calls ”willful neglect,” one of its most severe violations, and four other ”serious” violations. Keating Building Corporation of Philadelphia, the general contractor; Mitchell Bar Placement of Sewell, N.J., the company that installed the reinforcing steel; and Site Blauvelt Engineers, of Mount Laurel, N.J., were also fined $7,000 apiece for ”serious” violations, which means they knew or should have known that the condition could cause a death or serious injury. Fabi and Keating issued statements questioning whether OSHA had definitively identified the correct cause of the collapse.
”I hope they realize what they did” said Joleen Bigelow, whose husband, James P. Bigelow, 29, was killed in the accident. ”What they did to our families. What they did to our lives.”
Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing the families of two of the workers who were killed, said the fines are far too low, particular for Keating, which was supposed to provide overall supervision for the job. ”That is coffee money for a month on the job,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said.
The actions by OSHA are just the first step in what will most likely be a long legal process. Three of the four contractors said yesterday that they intended to appeal the findings and the proposed fines, while the fourth, Fabi, said it was considering such a step. Lawsuits have also been filed recently by the families of the workers killed and by injured workers. And criminal charges could come from either the United States attorney’s office or the Atlantic County prosecutor, who has already said he is considering such a step.
Kate Dugan, an OSHA spokeswoman, started a news conference in Marlton, N.J., the agency’s regional headquarters, by expressing her sympathy to the families of the men killed. ”Unfortunately, people at OSHA do see this everyday, since 16 people a day do die on the job in this country,” she said.
The federal investigators did not issue a report detailing exactly why the 10-story garage collapsed on Oct. 30 while concrete was being poured for the top parking level. But the one willful violation and eight serious violations of safety standards provide a road map of sorts to the collapse of the 2,400-space garage.
While placing interconnected mats of steel rebar — which structurally supports the floor — the workers did not anchor the rebar into the vertical columns at the garage’s edge, resulting in the filing of notices of violations against Fabi and Mitchell Bar Placement. Fabi was also cited for a willful violation for the improperly installed shoring. Site Blauvelt was cited for failing to do sufficient inspections to ensure that the reinforcing steel was properly installed. Keating was cited for not making sure its subcontractors had properly installed the shoring.
Because OSHA’s powers are limited to workplace safety violations, its investigators did not specifically address if a change in the way the floors were designed, which occurred after original structural plans had been set, was a factor in the collapse. This change, the structural engineer on the job has said, was motivated by a desire to reduce the cost of the job. What was clear by the OSHA findings is that the way this revised construction plan was executed was flawed, essentially causing the collapse.
Keating and Fabi were cited by OSHA twice before for accidents at the Tropicana complex — once for the death of a Fabi worker who fell in June 1995 and once for an accident in October 2002 that injured three workers.
The wives of two of the workers killed and the father of a third, among other family members, gathered Thursday at a local union hall, where they sat in a room filled with photographs of other major casino construction jobs the different generations of laborers here have built. They alternated between angry outbursts and tears as they talked about the accident and their reaction to the federal findings.
”I just pray to God that any of contractors out there place safety first,” said Nancy Wittland of Pleasantville, whose husband, Michael, 53, was killed in the accident. Her son, Ed, 34, was also severely injured that day. ”Then our husbands can come home.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, issued citations to contractors for a parking garage at the Tropicana Casino and Resort. The garage collapsed on Oct. 30, 2003, and the violations are summarized below. Horizontal reinforcing steel, or rebar mesh should have been pushed farther into the column. Longitudinal rebar was not placed through the columns. More of these bars should have overlapped with the column line. Improper shoring did not support concrete elements. Rebar was not installed along the bottom of floors.