Contractors Ignored Structural Problems, Oshareports Says

ATLANTIC CITY – As construction workers poured the top deck of the Tropicana Casino and Resort garage in October, the project’s concrete subcontractor knew there was a problem that could cause the structure to fail but ignored it, federal investigators charged in a report released Thursday on the fatal garage collapse.

Concrete floors weren’t properly supported and steel bars that were supposed to connect the garage’s walls and floors in an overlapping grid didn’t meet, leaving the structure unable to bear its own weight, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, found.

Four construction workers died and 21 more were injured when five floors after l0-story garage collapsed at 10:47 a.m. Oct. 30. The collapse sent hundreds of construction workers inside running for their lives. Others stayed behind and helped firefighters dig victims from the rubble as slabs of cement loomed overhead.

Workers pointed out cracks in the columns a few weeks before the collapse, but nothing was done, OSHA revealed after its six-month probe ended Thursday.

The report blamed structural problems for the collapse, including a lack of steel reinforcements in the concrete and inadequate shoring, or supports, drying concrete floors. It also cited negligence by private inspectors who didn’t identify basic problems. The agency cited four private companies for playing a role in the tragedy, and OSHA’s area director, Gary Roskoski, who led the investigation, had harsh words for them.

“Connecting horizontal steel to the vertical is a basic construction engineering design. very basic. It’s Engineering 101,” he said.

Demolition of the collapsed portions of the garage began earlier this month. Once the crushed portions are gone, the garage will be rebuilt.

The 2,400-space garage will be pan of a $245 million casino expansion known as The Quarter, which will include a hotel tower and a retail and entertainment complex. Before the collapse it was slated to open In March. Casino officials now plan a September debut.

But while the expansion may open in a few months, the legal wrangling over the collapse is expected to last for years. Criminal charges also may follow.

Roskoski refused to comment Thursday on any aspect of a criminal probe that is under way. Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz said his office will review all of OSHA’s reports and that his office still is gathering data.

“No action taken by this office should impede any administrative action taken by OSHA or any of the action taken by the civil litigants. We have been and continue to be in a dialogue with OSHA” the prosecutor said.

OSHA issued nine violations. totaling $119,500 In fines. The companies involved have 15 working days to contest the fines or pay them.

The violations included a $70,000 “willful violation” to concrete subcontractor Fabi Construction Inc. of Egg Harbor Township.

That violation, the stiffest citation OSHA can dole out, alleges the company intentionally disregarded the law by failing to make sure the form work for the concrete on the garage’s top level was capable of supporting loads without failing.

Project general contractor Keating Building Corp., of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., faces a $70,000 “willful violation” OSHA calls “serious,” as do Mitchell Bar Placement Inc. of Sewell, and Site Blauvelt Engineers of Mount Laurel. Fabi also faces live additional serious violations for a total of $98,500 in fines.

OSHA defines serious violations as those that pose a substantial chance that death or serious physical Injury can result from a hazard a company knew about or should have known about.

Mitchell Bar Placement said it will contest OSHA’s claim that It didn’t properly embed welded wire fabric mesh in the concrete and that the reinforcing bars were improperly placed.

“Not one drop of concrete was poured until all of our work was in place,” company Genera] Manager Mitch D’Amioo said Thursday.

Site Blauvelt Engineers Human Resources Vice President Dan Sell said his company also would contest OSHA’s citation claiming the company didn’t provide employees with enough training for the inspection job and that the firm’s employees signed off on bad1y-placed welded wire fabric mesh and reinforcing beams.

But lawyers representing those injured or killed by the collapse applauded the government’s findings.

Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing the widows of two of the victims and others who were seriously injured, said OSHA’s findings prove what he had said from the start that “a shocking lack of connections between floors and walls in the structure” made for “an accident waiting to happen.”

Tropicana declined comment on Thursday’s OSHA findings. Fabi defended its work, saying it was performed “in accordance with shop drawings and reviewed and approved by the engineer of record.”

“The shoring was installed and maintained by Fabi consistent with the requirements of the specifications and applicable industry standards,” a spokesman for the concrete subcontractor said Thursday, questioning the adequacy of the structure’s design.

OSHA has no authority to penalize design companies who aren’t involved on-site under the provisions of federal law, agency officials said. A Keating spokesman said the genera1 contractor would appeal its $7,000 violation, saying “there is still much information to be gathered and analyzed.”

“There is nothing in OSHA’s findings or in our own investigation that point in any way to a direct and clear-cut cause of this tragedy” spokesman Jason Rockers aid Thursday.

Roskoski, OSHA’s area director, also suggested Thursday that while OSHA had no authority to penalize the municipality, Atlantic City officials were somewhat responsible because city inspectors approved the construction.

A city inspector checked preparations for a concrete pour about 40 minutes before the collapse, city records show.

Atlantic City Business Administrator Benjamin Fitzgerald denied Thursday that the city was culpable, saying city officials weren’t responsible for managing the casino construction site.

“The city’s responsibility is to enforce the statutes and regulations of the city’s building’s codes – not to manage the job site. The full responsibility falls on the contractors and on the design,” Fitzgerald said

“There was a significant change in what was actually implemented from what was presented to the state, but that will come out as the investigation continues,” Fitzgerald added.

However, Roskoski said that a redesign didn’t figure into the immediate collapse and that a structural engineer approved everything that was changed. He also said the pace with which the project progressed didn’t figure into the collapse.

Attorney Paul D’Amato, who has partnered with Mongeluzzi to represent plaintiffs in nearly two-dozen personal-injury lawsuits and the widows’ wrongful death claim, said Thursday that the civil actions will be amended to include New Jersey and Atlantic City as defendants.

While buoyed by the government’s, findings Thursday, some loved ones of the men who died in the collapse struggled to control their emotions when confronted with the OSHA report.

“It was worse than I thought it would be. I didn’t think it would be that bad,” Joleen Bigelow, 24, the widow of 29-year-old ironworker Jimmy Bigelow Jr., said amid tears. I hope they realize what they did to our lives.”

“It’s been so hard. My son looks for pictures and says ‘Daddy’ and doesn’t understand where he is,” she said of her 2-year-old.

Beside Bigelow’s husband, the collapse claimed the lives of 53-year-old ironworker Michael Wittland, of Pleasantville, and cement masons Scott Pietrosante, 21, of Buena Vista Township, and Robert Tartaglia Jr., 42, of Galloway Township.

Some of their family members will be present today at a 4 p.m. dedication of a sculpture of a construction worker erected earlier this week at Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk.

The 8-foot-tall bronze sculpture symbolizes the sacrifices of fallen union laborers and is next to a memorial listing the names of the 25 people who have died in the workplace since the casino era began in Atlantic City.

Resort construction workers will line up starting at 3:30 p.m. near Tropicana and march down the Boardwalk for the sculpture dedication, said Roy Foster, local president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

“For the families, they’ll know, someone, somewhere, will always be thinking of their loved ones,” Foster said of the crowds who will pass the sculpture on the Boardwalk everyday.

“It won’t bring them back, but at least they’re not forgotten.”

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