Looking Back: Laborers still pained by Kimmel collapse tragedy

Daily News - By Ramona Smith
December 6, 2001

DAVE JENNINGS landed face-down in fresh concrete, buried except for the back of his jacket. That's how they found him, more than two stories down from where he had stood moments earlier - before scaffolding collapsed at the site of the Regional Performing Arts Center, dumping Jennings and six other construction workers into a pit.

"I was buried under the concrete," Jennings said nearly two years later. "I had concrete everywhere, in my ears, I had concrete in my nose, my eyes."

A laborer near him could see only the jacket. He pulled on it, saving Jennings from death in the wet concrete.

Eight workers nearly gave their lives for the new Kimmel Center, the $265 million showcase for music and dance that opens next week on South Broad Street.

Their rescue after the collapse - by fellow workers, fire-fighters and a steel-nerved construction crane operator - was hailed as a near-miracle by emergency room doctors and the recuperating men.

But as Philadelphia looks forward to the center's opening, "there's another side to the project," said lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi, who represents five of the men injured in the collapse. "These guys really paid dearly for it ... It ended all five of their careers."

Four of the eight men, including Jennings, haven't worked since the Feb. 10, 2000, accident. One took a job with an Internet company and two went back to construction. The eighth forced himself to return to the Kimmel Center job this summer - and lasted just three hours.

"They've got all sorts of major, major problems," Mongeluzzi, said.

A numbing pain

Dave Jennings was in and out of consciousness as he was pulled from the collapsed wooden scaffolding and 40 tons of wet concrete that fell. The accident happened as workers began pouring concrete for a ramp to a basement-level parking garage.

By the time the South Philadelphia electrician was alert enough to realize he had survived, the pain had passed beyond pain, to the point that his body felt numb.

His face was severely burned by chemicals in the concrete. His spine was fractured, his brain injured, his right hip dislocated, his left wrist cracked. He had fallen with his weight on his left shoulder, shifting his collarbone to the right.

After four or five days in the hospital, Jennings was able to go home to his wife and sons. But most of the pain - physical and emotional-lay ahead.

"I'm trying to get my life back together," said Jennings, now 41.

"What hurts me is, I can't do what I used to do. I can't even throw a baseball with my kids, or a basketball."

He can't run a play for his sons, now 8 and 12, to show them how it's done. He can't coach the kids' soccer team he used to field for South Philly's Marian Anderson Recreation Center.

He can't sit long in one place, can't stand up for long. Can't return to his 22-year career as a union electrician.

"I'm very depressed about myself, the way that I'm living right now, things that I can't do, things that I used to do. "I just thought I was a real strong person."

Into the pit

What caused the collapse that hurled seven workers into the pit and left another twisting in midair until he could jump to safety?

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration blamed concrete contractor B. Pietrini and Sons of King of Prussia, accusing it of willfully using an inadequate support structure for the workers pouring the concrete.

An OSHA investigation concluded that the company had failed to adequately brace a type of structure that it had never used in building a sloping ramp - and that it had built the supports without an engineer's drawings.

Without admitting negligence, the company paid $87,000 in April to settle the $124,600 fine originally sought by OSHA. Five other contractors, including general construction manager L.F. Driscoll Co., paid a total of $5,775 to settle lesser violations.

The rest of the legal responsibility remains to be sorted out in Common Pleas Court, where seven workers, including the five represented by Mongeluzzi, have sued the construction companies, the scaffolding manufacturer and the Regional Performing Arts Center.

"Combined claims are obviously worth in the millions of dollars," Mongeluzzi said.

Mongeluzzi, who specializes in high-profile construction accident lawsuits, estimates the case could go to trial late next year or early in 2003.

'God saved US…'

Chris Rizzo thought it was all over.

He and other cement workers were standing on the scaffolding near the first 30-foot section of concrete that was being poured at the top of the ramp.

Seconds later, he was sprawled on his back at the bottom of the construction pit.

"It was like slow motion," said Rizzo, now 34. "It seemed like forever to hit bottom. Obviously, my kids and my wife were the first things to pass before my eyes. I thought this was it. I thought my days were over. I thought it was done."

When he hit bottom, "everything came down on top of me. I was covered up to my waist with concrete and rebar," the iron rods used to strengthen concrete.

"God saved us, and [other construction workers] were the angels," said Rizzo, of South Philadelphia. "The workers jumped right in that hole. I heard them hollering for torches. They began cutting guys out of the rebar."

Today, Rizzo said he lives with chronic pain. "I can't go back to work from the extent of my injuries," including constant headaches and permanent nerve damage in his chest, neck, face, thigh and groin.

And he hurts because of what he can't do - the job, the things he wants to do with his son and daughter.

"My son wants to play hockey, my daughter wants to go to dancing school, and I can't be involved because of my injuries. It eats my gut to know that I can't do these things."

Holidays intensify his depression, and after the collapse of the World Trade Center, "I cried for days." He could imagine the horror of the New York victims - and he could feel again what it 'was like to plunge to the abyss.

"I still relive it. Almost every day I relive it .. .I have severe anxiety attacks constantly," Rizzo said. "It was just that one minute we were there, and one minute we were gone."

Angel in a crane

From the corner of his eye, 160 feet aloft in the cab of his construction crane, Russ Buoncuore could see the disaster unfolding on the site below.

"I heard a noise. I knew there was men over there pouring concrete and they just went down," said Buoncuore, now 63. "I started blowing the horn to get attention. A lot of men on the job were down in there trying to get them out."

Buoncuore, a veteran heavy equipment operator from Pennsville, N.J., had never seen anything like it. Since then, though, from his current job in Jersey City, he saw the World Trade Center towers fall.

It was up to him to gently maneuver the crane's heavy, weighted boom to lift at least four injured men out of the bowels of the Kimmel Center, one by one.

He brought up laborer Michael Warnick, now 50, of Runnemede, Camden County, N.J. "Whether he can return to work again is going to be a big question," said Warnick's lawyer, Mark J. Lewinter.

And the crane brought up cement mason Mike Berardi of Northeast Philadelphia, who was at the construction site that day by a twist of fate.

30 tons of concrete

Berardi had never worked at the Kimmel Center until the morning of the collapse.

"That day I was on call," Berardi said. During a lull at his usual job, he'd gone on the hiring list at the cement finishers hall - and landed the job at the Kimmel Center for just one day.

"I guess we were lucky," he said, looking back. "If you looked at the mess, you would wonder how anybody lived."

As he and Rizzo waited to level the concrete, "We heard a large bang. Right after that, I heard somebody yell to jump. They said I was on the bottom and 30 tons of concrete and steel fell on top of us. How we didn't get pierced, I don't know."

Berardi, now 45, knows he can't do the same kind of work he did before.

"It just about ruined my life in some respects," he said. He has a pinched nerve in his neck that requires periodic shots to quell the pain. He has damage to three spinal discs and his sciatic nerve is shot. He can't work out as he always did.

Under the pressure, he and his wife, Joyce, say their marriage fell apart. They've separated. "It was really me," Berardi said.

Berardi, who is represented by lawyer Murray L. Greenfield, said he hopes to find work in construction supervision or train for a new career in the restaurant business.

"I want to go to work," he said. "It's just I can't do physical work. Thank God I'm alive."

No return visits

If the accident hadn't happened, Berardi and Rizzo and Jennings probably would be ready to check out performances at the Kimmel Center.

"I love all music, from rock 'n' roll, blues, jazz. I love classical music, especially Italian opera," said Rizzo, who also rates Sinatra No.1. Jennings likes jazz "but I almost can get into any type of music."

But none of the three is in a hurry to head for the center.

"I might try going down there" eventually, Jennings said, ''but if you asked me right now, no."

Trying to work

Four of the men injured at the Kimmel Center have gone back to work - or tried. Allen McCray, 39, of West Oak Lane, took a desk job at an Internet company and has not returned to his old job working with concrete.

McCray - unlike the other seven - never plunged into the pit. He managed to grab hold of a swinging piece of steel or other construction material, and wrenched his back jumping to avoid a fall.

Michael Valles, a young laborer from Bensalem, went back to work at the center a few months after the accident, only to be laid off later, his stepfather said.

Valles, now 19, suffered an eye injury and bruises. He is currently in Bucks County Prison on an assault conviction and could be released in March. His family decided not to include him as a plaintiff in the injured workers' suit.

Earven Pettaway of Olney said he's now back at his old job as a laborer for Pietrini, working at other sites. "The first day, they sent me right back to the same place" at the Kimmel Center, said Pettaway - on light duty, at first, as a "flagger," controlling traffic from South Broad Street.

Now 59, Pettaway said he broke his right ankle in the fall. It still gives him trouble, ''but 1 don't want anybody to feel sorry for me."

"I only had a couple flashbacks," he said. "When I was working with concrete and it was wet, I had a flashback."

'Blessed to be here'

Rodney Jones went back to his cement mason's job at the Kimmel Center - and lasted all of three hours. "I tried one day," said Jones, now 33. "I asked my dad to drive me down there so I could have some moral support."

That was more than a year and a half after the disaster.

"The closer we got to the job, the more my mouth got dry and my nerves were really shaking." Jones worked that day smoothing concrete walls in a stairwell.

"It was hard," said Jones, of Mount Airy. "When 1 came to an opening, I would stay as far away from it as possible to avoid looking down in a hole."

The accident had left Jones with nerve damage in his right arm and shoulder, which swells and sends shooting pains through his neck to behind his ear.

When the arm began to swell up on the job, one of the construction bosses told him to put ice on it and take a break. But by that time, Jones was reaching his limit.

"When I sat down, everything just started coming back," said Jones. "And I said, 'Man, I can't do this.' So I just got off the site, and called my dad."

He hasn't worked again.

Like several of the other men, Jones continues to fight frequent pain and sees a psychologist to help deal with his depression. Disasters such as the World Trade Center attack, and especially the collapse of Pier 34 on the Delaware River last year, reawaken the horror.

"It's rough, man, but I've got good friends, I've got good family support," said Jones, who has plans to marry next year.

''We only fell three stories, and it could have been much worse. Sometimes when I get angry and upset and emotional, that kind of grounds me: I'm blessed to be here."

Related Attorneys

Robert J. Mongeluzzi

Office: 215-575-2989

Larry Bendesky
Larry Bendesky Managing Shareholder

Office: 215-575-2952
Mobile: 610-639-3221

Verdicts & Settlements

$12,700,000 Kimmel Center Accident Nets $12.7 Mil.

See Many More Multi-Million Dollar Results