Failure in April 1978 of the Willow Island cooling tower in Wheeling, West Virginia – still considered the worst ever construction disaster in the United States – was perhaps the most significant event during my time on NCE.
Fifty one men died when concrete failed during the tower’s 29th lift, 50m or so above ground. I was fortunate in not adding to the death count too.
I arrived on site about 24 hours after the incident occurred, when grief and anger were beginning to replace shock, among the tight
knit backwoods community from which the deceased workers were mostly drawn.
Sons, brothers, fathers and uncles – four from the same family – had perished and feelings were running high. They were soon to be running a lot higher. A reporter from the New York Times, perplexed by the technicalities of the failure, decided to write a “colour piece”, focusing on hillbilly heartbreak.
His story was deemed condescending and offensive. So upset was one bereaved father that he went, with a gun, to have words with the reporter, who was a tall man, with an out-of-town accent, red hair and a red beard. Alerted to the danger, the reporter fled.
Honey you better leave. There's a man out there looking to kill you
I turned up about the same time, tall, with my out-of-town accent, red hair and bushy red beard.
“Honey,” the receptionist said, at the motel where I tried to check in. “You better leave. There’s a man out there looking to kill you.”
Fearful that others might also mistake my identity, I reported to the Wheeling police and was given an escort to the Willow Island site. There the word went out that I did not work for the New York Times and was on no account to be shot.
The site was a shambles of shattered concrete, bent high-ten rebar and twisted jump-form shutters. The ill-fated cooling tower was positioned alongside an immediate predecessor that had been built without problems. It was being cast – as had been its neighbour – in 1.5m lifts, one a day, the forms raised, or “jumped”, after 24 hours and bolted to the previous day’s concrete.
At 10am on 27 April, after a cold damp night, a “cathead” crane mounted high on the shutter to hoist up buckets of fresh concrete toppled inwards as the previous day’s lift of concrete started to “un-wrap”. Concrete, men and equipment hurtled down inside the remaining structure to the ground.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) staff arrived the same day to begin an investigation. They were eventually to conclude that the supporting concrete was insufficiently cured, bolts were missing, other bolts were of inadequate quality and the hoisting system had been modified without proper review.
Beyond not being gunned down, I had one further piece of good fortune. OSHA had set up headquarters in a Wheeling hotel, in whose main corridor I stood at 10am on my second morning, waiting to interview the OSHA head of investigation – who had earlier warned by phone he could tell me nothing.
He was late. Eastern Standard Time had moved forward one hour the previous night – and my OSHA man had forgotten to adjust his alarm.
A passing chambermaid (unasked) kindly let me into the room being used by the safety agency, where I sat for an hour with dozens of witness statements, specifications and drawings laid out before me.
Further validation – if such was required – of the old adage: “Don’t give me a good reporter, give me a
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