Safety At A.C. Garage Probed

The four workers who perished have been laid to rest.

Twenty-one others are recovering, some with injuries so debilitating they may never work a construction site again.

Two weeks have passed since the parking garage at the Tropicana Casino Resort collapsed as hundreds of tradesmen worked to complete part of a $245 million expansion.

Now, advocates for the men who fell with the thousands of tons of concrete are mounting an attack on the ones they say were responsible when something went wrong Oct. 30.

As investigators with the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration continued their probe of the collapse, a worker-safety group said this week that it would urge the agency to seek criminal prosecution against general contractor Philadelphia-based Keating Building Corp., and Absecon concrete firm Fabi Construction.

Jim Moran, director of PhilaPOSH, a coalition of 100 Philadelphia-area unions advocating safer working conditions, said the pair’s history – the two companies headed a 1995 project at the Tropicana when a worker fell to his death, and in October 2002, three workers were injured at another collapse at the new parking garage – was too much to ignore.

“There’s a track record,” he said. “The body count keeps rising. And these guys are allowed to keep doing it.”

Both companies have declined comment, saying only that they are cooperating with investigators.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the victims have begun their parallel investigations, hiring experts to determine the cause – and demand accountability for possibly the worst construction accident in the city’s history.

“This destroyed the lives and careers of a lot of men working that day,” Philadelphia attorney Robert Mongeluzzi said.

Mongeluzzi is representing the families of iron workers Michael Wittland, 53, and James “Jimmy” Bigelow Sr., 29, who both perished when the concrete floors they were working on pancaked. Also pulled from the rubble were concrete workers Scott N. Pietrosante, 21, and Robert A. Tartaglio Jr., 42.

What is known of the accident is that five floors collapsed as concrete was poured on the top deck of what was to be a 10-floor, 2,400-space garage about 10:40 a.m.

OSHA officials have refused to discuss the probe, which could take months to complete.

But attorneys are homing in on a few theories. Mongeluzzi, who said he could file suit as soon as next week, said he had talked to dozens of construction workers. And last week, he and a group of experts, including a civil engineer and concrete expert, inspected the site. Joining that team soon, Mongeluzzi said, will be Gene Corley, the structural engineer who led investigations on behalf of the federal government after the Oklahoma City bombing and the collapse of the World Trade Center.

At the site, demolition crews have torn down much of an outer garage wall left freestanding after the collapse.

The apparent lack of any ties securing the garage floors to that wall is one of two main “suspects” in the collapse, Mongeluzzi said.

“We don’t know whether that was by design, or failure to follow design,” Mongeluzzi said.

Jerry Kilby, Atlantic City’s chief engineer, said he could not determine what had kept the floors attached to that wall.

“I was curious about that myself,” he said recently.

So were workers.

“The deck collapsed. Everything went straight down,” said Mike Dabundo, an iron worker at the site. “There was nothing in there for it to tie into.”

Mongeluzzi and Stewart Eisenberg, a lawyer representing three men injured in the collapse, said they also were investigating whether the drying concrete decks were well-enough supported from below. Special poles are used to help hold up decks until they can support themselves.

The lawyers said they were looking into whether those poles were removed too soon before the wet concrete had enough time to dry.

Some workers have reported that poles in place in the days before the collapse were bending under the weight.

Keating officials declined to comment, issuing instead a statement: “We’re all emotional and looking for answers. Rather than speculate, we’re focused on moving the OSHA inquiry forward.”

Eisenberg, also lining up his team of professionals, said he would focus on the so-called filigree-wideslab method used to build the parking garage decks. Prefabricated concrete slabs are transported to the site and lifted into place, where another layer of concrete is poured overtop.

Eugene McDermott, executive vice president of Mid-State Filigree Systems of Cranbury, which provided the slabs for the garage, said that once the made-to-order pieces are shipped to the field, it is up to the contractor to get them into place safely. He said OSHA investigators had visited his company at the beginning of the month.

“I believe they didn’t find anything wrong with what we are doing or the materials we supplied,” he said.

Officials at SITE-Blauvelt Engineers of Mount Laurel, which was hired to test the concrete for the project, declined comment, saying only that they were cooperating with OSHA’s investigation.

Moran, of PhilaPOSH, the worker-safety group, believes there is enough evidence to incriminate Fabi and Keating. He said he plans to write OSHA within the month.

“We’re going to continue to raise pressure on [OSHA] and any other investigative body,” he said.

On June 10, 1995, 24-year-old Fabi worker Frank Caucci fell to his death when the concrete slab he and a coworker were demolishing split in half.

In that case, OSHA cited Fabi for violations, including one “willful,” and fined the company $105,000. According to court documents, OSHA investigators said Fabi “was plainly indifferent to the safety of its employees.” But an administrative judge determined that Fabi had not acted willfully and knocked the violation back to “serious” and the fine back to $31,500. Keating was fined $6,400 in the same incident, reduced from an initial $20,800.

In October 2002, three workers fell and were injured at the Tropicana garage. Again, Keating and Fabi were cited by OSHA and fined, Keating $1,125 and Fabi $8,375.

The fallout from last month’s collapse could be much worse.

In addition to the deaths, one worker shattered his spine and a leg, another broke a jaw and both legs. But “it’s not just personal-injury claims. You’ve got major property damage and contract claims. You’re probably talking about tens of million in property damage and delays,” Mongeluzzi said.

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