The collapse of the Tropicana’s parking garage took the lives of four local men James Bigelow was 29. He and his wife, Joleen, would have celebrated their second wedding anniversary Nov. 17.
“He was her first love – her only boyfriend, the best husband and father in the world,” Joleen’s mother, Valerie Giannini, said Friday as she stood on the front porch of the couple’s Egg Harbor Township home.
“He was my son-in-law and I loved him like my own,” she said, her face reddened from crying as she sorted through family snapshots, looking for a photo of Bigelow and his wife with their 19-month-old son, James Jr.
Bigelow was one of four workers killed and 20 injured Thursday when sections of the top five levels of a new parking garage under construction at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City collapsed as they were working there.
Authorities identified the three other workers killed as Michael Wittland, 43, of Pleasantville; Scott Pietrosante, 21, of the Milmay section of Buena Vista Township; and Robert Tartaglia Jr., 42, of Galloway Township.
Bigelow and his wife met as neighbors eight years ago in Somers Point “and they’ve been inseparable ever since,” Giannini said. “That girl is going through hell right now.”
She said Bigelow and Joleen introduced her to Bigelow’s brother, George, and “we’ve been together eight years, too,”
Bigelow loved race cars so much that he bought a Chevrolet Malibu and got it into racing shape.
“He put a lot of money into it because he was going to race it at Atco,” Giannini said. “(Joleen) says she’s going to do it. George (Bigelow’s brother) is going to finish painting it for her.”
Bigelow and Wittland were ironworkers. Both were down in me stairwell when the garage collapsed, said Will Pauls, business manager for Ironworkers Union Local 350 of Atlantic City.
Pauls, who also is president of the Building Trades Council of southern New Jersey, said he and other members of his union worked around the clock to help secure the building so rescue workers could get into it.
Emergency management personnel went way beyond the call of duty to rescue workers, Pauls said. Bigelow graduated from his two-year iron-working apprenticeship in June. Union Local 350 named him the outstanding apprentice of his class, Pauls said.
Pauls said he was a personal friend of Wittland, a 25-year union member whose son, Ed, also an ironworker, was injured in the collapse and remained hospitalized Friday.
Michael Wittland was “an outstanding guy,” Pauls said. He was always there for you whenever you asked him to do something. Nothing was too much to ask.
There was no answer at the door of Wittland’s home on a quiet street in Pleasantville when a reporter knocked late Friday afternoon.
Pete Higbee, a neighbor across the meet, said he had known Wittland for 30 years and spoke by phone to Wittland’s wife, Nancy, a half-hour earlier.
“She’s very distraught because her son (Ed) is in the hospital with a broken neck,” Higbee said. “She doesn’t want to speak (to reporters) at this time.”
He said Nancy Wittland was staying with family out of town.
She and Wittland “were the best couple anybody could imagine,” Higbee said. “They did everything together 24/7 – shopping, church. housework, country line dancing. He’d be working on the car and she’d hand him the tools.”
The couple had three sons, Higbee said. He used to baby-sit them. When they got old enough, they baby-sat Higbee’s children.
Pietrosante and Tartaglia worked as cement finishers for Fabi Construction Co.
Pietrasante’s father, who answered the phone at the family home Friday, said he did not want to talk at this point. Some family members visited the construction site Friday and shed a few quiet tears.
A woman who answered the phone at Tartaglia’s home said the family was mourning and did not wish to talk at that time.
Tartaglia was a member of Cement Masons Union Local 2 in Pennsville, Salem County.