In a post from earlier this month, the Charleston workers’ compensation attorneys mentioned National Workers Memorial Day, a day of observance to remember workers who have lost their lives due to on the job accidents and injuries. National Workers Memorial Day is April 28, and in large part the reason for this particular date is because of a major construction accident that occurred on April 27, 1978, known as the Willow Island Disaster.
Yesterday afternoon an employee of Christmas Injury Lawyers came across some information regarding the Disaster, and realized his grandfather worked at a nearby chemical plant just downstream the Ohio River from the Monongahela Power Plant at Willow Island, the location of the cataclysmic construction accident. Having this connection to the Disaster, the employee contacted his grandfather to get a firsthand account of what happened that unfortunate day in April 1978, in an effort to better understand the ramifications of such an incident. Also, while the facts of the Willow Island Disaster can be easily found on the Internet, it is far more authentic and profound to hear of historical events from those close to them.
What follows is the text of an email from Mr. John T. Fries (pronounced “freeze”), a native West Virginian and Damn Fine Grandfather. “I spent 42 years working at the chemical plant next door to the Monongahela Power Plant at Willow Island. The name of the company I worked for was American Cyanamid Company. The power plant accident happened one day while I was taking inventory which meant I moved through-out our plant. I saw helicopters hovering over the power plant so we knew something had happened. Of course we found out when we got home. Our plant was on the downriver side of the power plant so we did not pass it going to and from work. In fact, I think we found out about it shortly after the accident happened–news travels fast, especially news of the magnitude this accident was. As I remember 50 some people were killed. As it turned out, short cuts were taken which caused the scaffolding to give way. ”
What had happened was a cooling tower collapsed while under construction, killing 51 workers who were located on scaffolding attached to the tower. A jump scaffolding system was being used, with the scaffolding secured by bolts in one-day and three-day-old concrete. The scaffolds were designed to be progressively moved up the tower as it was built. As Mr. Fries remembers, the workers had completed about half off the cooling tower when the fatal construction accident occurred.
The National Bureau of Standards, now called the called National Institute of Standards and Technology, investigated the incident and determined that the concrete had not cured long enough to attain the strength necessary to support the scaffolds and the workers. In addition, key bolts meant to attach the scaffolding to the shell of the tower were missing. The report concluded that “the most probable cause of the collapse was the imposition of construction loads on the shell before the concrete of Lift 28 had gained adequate strength to support these loads.”
What is most surprising to the wrongful death attorneys at Christmas Injury Lawyers is the lack of sanctions and legal action taken after the Willow Island Disaster. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the Willow Island contractors for 10 willful and 10 serious violations, and proposed a penalty of $108,300. OSHA and the contractor agreed to settle the case for $85,500, or about $1,700 per dead worker. Calculating for inflation, today that amounts to an almost disrespectful $5,617.49 per dead worker. Also, OSHA referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for a possible criminal investigation, but no charges were ever filed.
*A very special thanks to Mr. Fries for providing his account of what is considered the worst construction accident in U.S. History.