They are construction workers, not engineers or safety experts. But George Tolson, Norman Williams and John Pietrosante Jr. found themselves focusing on a common thought: something unsafe or at least unsettling was going on as they rushed to complete a $245 million expansion of the Tropicana Casino and Resort.
The job had gotten off to a slow start, given bad weather last winter. As the April 2004 deadline approached to complete the new 502-room hotel, a 10-story, 2,400-space parking garage and a sprawling retail and entertainment complex called the Quarter, each could feel the pressure building to quicken the pace. But not just the pace of work disturbed them.
Mr. Tolson and Mr. Williams, laborers who helped install so-called pole shores — metal pogo-sticklike devices that temporarily hold up the concrete floors until they harden enough to support themselves — could see that half a dozen or so of these poles had somehow been bent out of shape. The implication was unmistakable: the floors, even if just so slightly, were moving.
“The concrete was too green,” Mr. Tolson, 60, said he told his foreman, using slang to describe concrete that has not fully hardened. Mr. Williams, 49, recalled thinking: ” ‘There is too much weight on those shores.’ ”
Mr. Pietrosante, 25, saw a similarly disturbing condition: cracks in the concrete floors and columns he was helping to build, at an unusually rapid pace. “Usually you pour one floor of concrete every three weeks, but we were being pushed to do a floor a week,” he said. “This job was rush, rush, rush.”
Whatever the cause, there is no question now about what ensued. On the morning of Oct. 30, four workers were killed and 20 others were injured when five stories of the parking garage collapsed. Mr. Tolson, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Pietrosante escaped unscathed. But among the dead in this, the worst construction accident since casino gambling came to Atlantic City, was Mr. Pietrosante’s younger brother, Scott, 21. A federal inquiry will determine if workplace safety standards were violated.
John Miller, a spokesman for the Keating Building Corporation, a Philadelphia-based general contractor overseeing the project, would not discuss the accident other than to say that speculation is not helpful. “We are all emotional and looking for answers,” he said. “But rather than speculate, we are focused on moving the federal inquiry forward.”
Executives at Fabi Construction of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., the company hired to install the concrete, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Paul E. Rubeli, chairman of Aztar Corporation, which operates the Tropicana, said, “I don’t think there was any pressure being put outside what was the normal schedule.”
W. Gene Corley, a structural engineer who led the inquiry into the collapse of the World Trade Center, said: “The perception of people working at the site and what is going on are not always the same. It is certainly something that needs to be followed up on. But it is too early to know if that might have contributed.”
To Mr. Tolson and other workers, though, the history of accidents at the site is more reason to be concerned that safety may have been compromised.
“They lost their lives for nothing,” Mr. Tolson said.
Accidents in the Past
“Let’s get ready to rumble,” yelled Michael Buffer, the ever-enthusiastic boxing announcer, at an elaborate Oct. 14 news conference that Tropicana executives held to build expectation for the complex Mr. Tolson and the other laborers were piecing together. The opening of the upscale Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in July set a new standard for Atlantic City, a resort town trying to reposition itself to attract a younger and more affluent crowd.
Tropicana’s plan is to create a Las Vegas-style neighborhood that would draw gamblers and nongamblers alike. But first hundreds of laborers would have to spend two years building it, a process that has come, at least temporarily, to a halt.
The team assembled to build the new Tropicana complex was a familiar one. Keating, the general contractor, and Fabi, the concrete installer, had worked together at the Tropicana in the mid-1990’s to build the 600-room, 21-story West Tower hotel.
Yet even in that early phase, there were signs of trouble in this partnership. The West Tower was being built atop an existing structure. In June 1995, two Fabi laborers were sent in to knock out a roof panel so the two buildings could be integrated. Frank Caucci, hired the week before, was given a sledgehammer, while the second worker, Thomas Kane, went at the panel with a jackhammer, records say. Suddenly, the entire 10,000-pound panel fell into a shaft, dropping 10 stories to the ground. Mr. Kane was able to grab hold of a wall. Mr. Caucci, 24, fell to his death.
Investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the United States Department of Labor found that Mr. Kane and Mr. Caucci had not been given sufficient training and that Fabi had not adequately assessed the risk of the job.
A “willful violation” complaint was filed against Fabi, the most serious allowed, meaning “the evidence shows either an intentional violation of the act or plain indifference to its requirements.” After Fabi disputed the finding, a federal fine was reduced this year to $31,500 from $105,000 and the violation downgraded to “serious” from “willful,” a ruling Fabi is appealing. Keating, meanwhile, was fined $20,000 by OSHA, although it, too, appealed the penalty and an administrative law judge reduced it to $6,400.
In the eight years that this case made its way through administrative reviews and the court system, Keating and Fabi teamed up again at Tropicana. The expansion started in April 2002. Six months later, there was another accident.
The new parking garage is being built using a time-saving technique known as filigree wide-slab construction. Factory-made flooring sections, up to 70 feet long, are lowered into the building, where they are temporarily supported by the pole shores. Another layer of concrete is poured, creating a composite flooring structure about 10 inches thick.
These pole shores are a crucial component, as the prefabricated slab, acting almost like an egg carton, cannot alone support the weight of the wet concrete, said Eugene McDermott, executive vice president of Mid-State Filigree Systems of Cranbury, N.J., the supplier of the precast pieces for the Tropicana. “If there is an insufficient number or the posts are not of the proper capacity,” Mr. McDermott said, “they would start to buckle,” threatening the integrity of the floor.
In October 2002, one of the Mid-State pieces being installed at the Tropicana work site snapped, opening up what looked like a trap door. Three Fabi workers tumbled about 30 feet to the ground. All three were injured, two seriously. OSHA inspectors initially found evidence of four violations, complaints that generated fines of $8,375 against Fabi and $1,125 against Keating.
Liz Daley, a Fabi contract manager, said that the panel the men had been standing on cracked. But Mr. McDermott said the panel had cracked because “there wasn’t sufficient shoring” under the precast concrete section Mid-State had supplied.
Making Up for the Winter
OSHA inspectors had not been back at the Tropicana work site since their inspection after the October 2002 accident. With the snowy winter that followed, the pressure built on Fabi to speed up the job. “The project was delayed, and of course you want to make up time and meet an owner’s schedule,” Ms. Daley said. “But it is concrete, and you can only push a job so far.”
That was a claim that workers like Mr. Tolson and Mr. Williams now question. As of August, the two laborers said, they noticed bent or bowed pole shores underneath floors that had been covered with freshly poured concrete. The problem, the workers said, is that Fabi foremen were not allowing enough time for the floors to adequately cure before they removed or replaced certain pole shores, so the primary set of shores could be installed up another level to start work on the next floor.
Mr. Tolson, who has lost much of his hearing after decades around jackhammers, said that the bent pole shores troubled him so much he pointed them out to his foreman. “Don’t worry about it,” he said the foreman told him.
In early October John Pietrosante noticed the cracks in the concrete floor, walls and support columns. He mentioned them, he said, to Keating and Fabi foremen, asking if they were cause for alarm. “They told me it happens in a lot of buildings, but it wasn’t a problem,” he said.
The garage design was approved by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which concluded that “the finished building could carry the loads required,” said E. J. Miranda, a spokesman. The consulting engineers from New York City who designed the garage were not involved in the construction inspection. A spokesman for Site-Blauvelt Engineering of Mount Laurel, N.J., which did the inspections, declined to comment.
Suddenly, a Big Ball of Dust
It may take six months before the release of formal conclusions of the investigation into the collapse. Atlantic City officials, meanwhile, declined repeated requests to discuss their inspections of the site.
Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia lawyer representing the families of two of the workers killed in the collapse, said the reports about the bent shoring were already a focus of his attention. But he also has concerns about the sufficiency of the connections between the concrete floors and the exterior columns of the garage, and whether they were intertwined as robustly as they should be, something some workers also have questions about.
The morning of the collapse was routine in most ways, workers said. It was a clear day after two days of heavy rain. Workers were atop the seventh or eighth floor of the garage, underneath a hose spewing tons of concrete. This floor — then the top of the garage — was resting on two or three floors equipped with the temporary pole shores. Shores from another floor below had been taken out the previous day, Mr. Mongeluzzi said he has been told.
Thomas Cole, 46, a bricklayer, was working that morning inside the new hotel tower, which is attached to the garage. From his view from an 18th-floor window, he said, “there seemed to be more men and more concrete than they had poured on earlier days.”
“When I saw them before, they didn’t seem to pour quite as large a piece.” he said.
About 10:40 a.m., Mr. Williams felt an unfamiliar rumble. “What is that? What is that?” he said. Then there was a pause. Suddenly, a big ball of dust and a booming sound came tumbling toward him. “Poom, poom, poom, poom,” he said. “The slabs were falling.”
John Pietrosante had been working next to his brother, but walked about 30 feet away to fetch a ladder. “The floor just caved in, just fell right out,” he said. “There was dust, and this huge roar, and all of a sudden people were hanging from rebar screaming for help. I ran over to get them down, and started shouting for my brother, to see where he was.”
Five floors of the garage had separated from their support columns and tumbled one upon the other. Tons of freshly poured concrete then had slid down an elevator shaft and the stairwells, ending up in a huge pile at the bottom of the garage ramp.
That Mr. Tolson was a floor below where the collapse stopped, that John Pietrosante had just walked away from the area where the concrete was being poured, that Mr. Williams happened to be on the parking garage ramp, in each case meant that these men walked out unharmed. But each waits for investigators to offer a definitive answer as to why others died.
“Somebody didn’t do their jobs: the architects, the engineers, the foremen,” John Pietrosante said. “And now my brother and three other guys are gone forever.”