new york times magazine
The terrifying collapse of a scaffolding at a construction site in West Virginia last April left 51 dead and gouged a deep wound in the fabric of a small community.
December 3, 1978
By Eugene Kennedy
Mary Ellen Mark.

The terrifying collapse of a scaffolding at a construction site in West Virginia last April left 51 dead and gouged a deep wound in the fabric of a small community.

Portfolio of photos by Mary Ellen Mark.

It was unthinkable that it should break. 
"The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

First light promises a fair day. There is no wind and the Ohio River runs swift and flat past the rising structures of the new Monongahela Power Company plant at Willow Island, W. Va. Twenty-seven-hundred workers, employed by 20 subcontractors on the $660 million project, arrive early on the morning of April 27, 1978, before the sun has cleared the West Virginia hills that rise from the river in steep, convoluted patterns.

At the north end of the construction site stands the completed shell of a 430-foot concrete cooling tower. A hundred yards east, its unfinished twin has risen to the 168-foot level. The completed tower is strangely graceful, like a timeless artifact spun off a huge potter's wheel.

Across the river, Ken Hill, a carpenter foreman on the tower, has awakened early in the camper in which he has been living for the three weeks since he came down from a similar building job at Shippingport, Pa. On the way to his truck, the 41-year-old Hill speaks briefly with Lonny Clark, from whom he has rented the trailer space. "I stayed out of the doghouse," Hill, a ruggedly handsome man, says good-naturedly. 'I remembered to call my wife for her birthday last night." He puts his thermos jug bearing the symbol of the Marriage Encounter Movement, in his pickup truck and starts down the dirt road toward the bridge to West Virginia. This is the 10th cooling tower he has worked on since 1969.

Edna Copen holds a wartime photograph of her father, Roy Franklin Deem, 59, who was one of the victims of the scaffolding collapse at the power plant in Willow Island, W.Va.

Opal Mather, 28, comforts her son, Steve,8. She was widowed when he husband, Ronald, 31, died in the disaster.

Richard V. Bowser, 63, and his daughter Susan, 25, a victim of muscular dystrophy, are still grieving over the loss of Ronald Lynn Bowser, 28.

Not far into the West Virginia hills, in simple rustic homes that do not match their steady and prosperous employment, the Steele brothers, Larry Gale, 32, Ronald, 30, Ernest, 29, and Myles, 26, all of them with thick dark hair and bright black eyes, bid goodbye to their wives and children and drive through the still deeply shadowed hollows out toward Route 2 and the beckoning towers. They are all members of the Ironworkers local, as is their oldest brother, Robert, 35, who works at another part of the power-plant project. Their uncle Emmett Steele, 61, a rugged veteran of dozens of ironworking jobs, whose children have been trying to get him to retire, is also heading for work. And there are cousins, the Blouir brothers, as close to "good old boys" as can be found in all of Pleasants County: Sharkie, the oldest, who works on the ground of the cooling tower, and James, 40, and Robert, 36, who work with their nephew Steven, 26, who, like them, is also an ironworker. In fact, the talk for years has been how difficult it is to become a member of the Ironworkers local unless you are a Steele or a Blouir. Many members of another family, the Bills, are also in the union, so that jobs in the area often find a great number of relatives working together. Two grandnephews of the Steeles', carpenter Brian Taylor and laborer Chet Payne, both 19, are also driving toward Willow Island just before 7 AM. Up the river at Sistersville, Bob Doty, mayor of the small town of Belmont, near the power-plant project, is finishing his shift at Union Carbide and preparing to leave for home.

Lillie Steele, the matriarch of the Steele family, lost a son, four grandsons and two great-grandsons in the collapse.

All the men working on the cooling tower pass through Gate 6, where a black-lettered sign warns, "The Company reserves the right to inspect vehicles, lunch boxes, packages or other articles in possession of persons entering or leaving the project property. If you object to this policy DO NOT ENTER." The company  on 


tower's facing, with the veil just 18 inches thick.

The Criss Concrete truck drives into the cooling tower and up onto the wood ramp in the center as Fred Pride walks toward the fire-escape-like climbway to the scaffold. The tempo of the work on the scaffold has increased, and it is almost time to unload the truck into the hoppers that feed a half yard of concrete into each bucket that then rides up to the pour site on the rim.

The concrete truck rumbles, turning its contents slowly as the ground workers, moving easily in familiar tasks, wait for the intense activity of the pour itself. James Miller, a 29-year-old laborer from Elizabeth, W.Va., who helps mix the concrete, gashes the thumb on his right hand at 9:20 A.M. and leaves the tower for treatment in a Parkersburg hospital. Up the road in Belmont, Bob Doty arrives home and goes to bed. DaDiego circles back from the outside stairwell to the shielded wooden walkway that everyone uses to come into the tower itself. On the last unpainted two-by-four under which he passes someone has written with a black marking pen, "Through these portals pass the best tower builders in the world."

"Let's have some mud!" a voice calls from the scaffolding. The crew members who work around the concrete truck move into position like artillerymen sure that they have the range for their big gun. There are Sharkie Blouir and Jack Furey and the young truck driver John Grimes.

DaDiego moves past John Peppler, who stands next to the bucket that’s about to be filled and sent gliding to the cathead on the west side of the tower just between sections 22 and 23. It is a few minutes before 10 AM. The signal to start the pour is given and George Stefanovich, scaffold supervisor, steps off the scaffold and begins to climb the steps down to ground level.

A brawl erupted at the Rose Chalet after the tragedy "They want to hit back."

The Rev. Amos McVey helped bury the dead: "You begin in faith with the question 'Why?'.

DaDiego, about to draw his first sample of concrete, picks up a wheelbarrow as Peppler refills the bucket; it is just after 10 A.M. The bucket lifts away as DaDiego turns around. The concrete truck has stopped growling and all that can be heard are the incidental noises of the workers above. Suddenly the static line, taut a moment before, goes limp and falls through the air as a string might drop from one's fingers.

DaDiego spins around and yells instinctively, "Watch out, John! That bucket's coming down!" Peppler and DaDiego stand transfixed for the slightest moment, for
something they cannot understand, something they did not expect, is beginning to happen. The massive cathead structure above them is tottering and the scaffolding to the left of the cathead begins in awesome slow motion to tear away from the  rim. A jagged V shaped space opens in the once-solid mass of scaffolding structure as a mounting roar begins to echo through the structure. Some of the workers on the tumbling scaffold scramble away from the ruptured area. But there is no place to go because the apparatus, its shape transforming brutally under the impact of flying steel and wood, splashing arcs of fresh concrete and dislodging chunks of hardened concrete through the air, enfolds them swiftly, binding them in a grotesque tangle of machinery, boards and spearlike iron bars. Now a keening whistle cuts through the roar and the bolts that had secured the scaffolding begin to pop, one after the other, as the structure accelerates its savage separation from the rim. The roaring squeal, like the noise of a jet plane, intensifies and the workers on the ground throw themselves under the truck and ramp as debris begins to thud down around them. The scaffolding plummets down in one great blur, blotting out the light of day as a rapid cracking sound, like that of a great whip wrapping itself around a steel pole, fills the air. As the inside portion of the scaffolding falls, it abruptly snatches its twin section off the outer wall. Then, with one final whoosh, the collapsed decking, fanned out like playing cards, is sucked down into the darkness and noise and dust that are exploding up from the floor of the tower.

Then there is silence, the reinstated quiet of a country morning after a bombardment, as the clouds of dust rise above and away from the rim, which is now naked and chipped against a clean blue sky.

Lois Riley lost Robert, her husband of 11 years.

"Oh, God, no," DaDiego whispers as he crawls from beneath the truck to see the body of a young worker lying as if asleep, a trickle of blood at his mouth and his sightless eyes wide open to the sky. No sound rises from the jumble of steel, concrete, boards and shredded netting. "Please, God," DaDiego whispers again, "don't let this be." A siren begins to wail on the work site and then another, and yet another farther away in the now dead-quiet morning. Across the public-address system a voice crackles hoarsely, "All available help to the cooling tower!"

The bodies of the victims were approximately collected and approximately separated from one another, and there was great searching of hearts ..
-"The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

John Grimes, the cement-truck driver, stands numbly for a moment, then bolts. "I've got to get out of here !”

DaDiego calls after him, "Go, it's all right," and starts to make his way out of the tower as the first workers, on the run from every part of the site, arrive to help. He passes several bodies as he edges through the debris. Their eyes are open and they seem to be staring dreamily at something just out of focus, something in the far distance beyond the broken upper lip of the tower.

At 10:06 the first alarm rings at the emergency unit in St. Mary’s and a call is put out immediately on the citizens' band- radio summoning the 24 squad members to the fire department. Shari Doty, wife of Belmont's Mayor and a registered nurse as well as an emergency-squad member, hears the message on their home scanner and, leaving her small son with a neighbor, hurries off. Upstairs, her husband is awakened by the fire bell that is beaked into his phone. He answers sleepily and an excited voice asks, "Can you get us the keys to the community building? We may need it to hold the bodies."

"Bodies? What bodies?" Doty answers in astonishment.

Josephine Robertson mourns the tragic, sudden death of her son, Claude Joe Hendrickson "He bought this house for me before he bought his own.”

Fred Pride's sister, Gloria Lough, at the church in which they were active.

Edgar Duelley has arrived at the tower on which his brother, Ray, had worked. Dozens of hard-hatted laborers are already lifting bodies of dead workers out of the wreckage, moving them gently on the stretchers from the squat emergency vehicles that have begun to arrive from St. Mary’s and other towns up and down the Ohio River. Other men, with the fabled strength of such occasions, have started to move heavy steel beams and chunks of concrete to free the victims from the twisted trap of their deaths. Some of the dead have been thrown free, but others remain entombed under planking and steel, hidden by the wreckage in which they had been bundled so cruelly, gouts and ribbons of blood playing through the air around them as they descended in the fierce roar of that last desperate half minute of life. Now, with a kind of tender competence, their fellow workers are uncovering the shattered and smashed bodies of their friends. Edgar Duelley utters one brief prayer, "Lead me to my brother," as he moves deliberately, like a man answering a call, to the area where the body of his brother is just being uncovered.

The road beside the power plant is now jammed with vehicles, some of them police and some emergency and many just sightseers. The news of the disaster crackles out, a mixture of rumor and fact, through CB radio exchanges, news bulletins on the networks, and through friends calling each other. In Shippingport, J.T. Bates leaves his head engineer's office at the cooling-tower construction site there and drives to the home of Ken Hill in nearby Midland. Barbara Hill has heard nothing because she has been cleaning house and she is surprised as the dog starts barking when Bates climbs the front steps. A shock of fear runs through her when she sees who it is. "Barbara," he begins, "something has happened to Ken...”

Back at the cooling tower, the workers, aided by the emergency crews and a handful of doctors who have come to the scene, are laying the dead on the ground under a cover of canvas. Dom DaDiego walks by and recognizes the black shoes, now with one heel broken off, that Fred Pride had worn that morning. He lifts the canvas. "Fred looks just like he's asleep," he says, dropping the canvas once more. Cherry pickers and cranes have been moved in to lift the heavy debris, and the recovery of the dead now moves more rapidly. A melancholy message is sent to two nearby hospitals in which emergency plans to receive and treat the injured have been put into effect; they can return to normal operations because there are no survivors.

The first newspaper reporters have begun to arrive, along with still and television cameramen. They are kept across the road, near the Rose Chalet restaurant, while the recovery work continues. It is close to noon as Mayor Doty, who has been at the scene since he received the emergency call - along with emergency-squad head Richard McCullough and Fire Chief Harry Morgan - formulates a plan for the next phase of the day's grim business. The bodies are to be transported in the emergency vehicles to the firehouse in Belmont, a mile north. There, a special team of officers, headed by Capt. Joe Trupo, commander of the state police company out of Shinnston, will identify the bodies, tag the stretchers and place the victims' valuables in Manila envelopes. The friends and relatives will be kept in the Belmont United Methodist Church across from the firehouse until called to confirm the identifications.

The death toll, reported at noon as 38, rises officially to 51 at 1 P.M. It is the second-worst construction accident on record, and carries grim echoes of the worst accident, the collapse of the Quebec Bridge on Aug. 29, 1907, which killed 96 men.

The state police make out a complete list that is driven 20 miles down-river to Parkersburg, where, in an old armory, relatives of the workers from that area have gathered. Sgt. Russell Miller starts to read the names to 100 relatives and friends. "First, the ironworkers... ," he intones, and a wail of grief goes up. After he is finished, a still-trembling woman asks him, "If my husband's name wasn't read, does that mean he's alive?"

At 3:45 P.M., one of the firehouse garage doors is raised slowly and the first sheet-covered body, protected from the gaze of the press by the state troopers and emergency-squad workers, is transferred to a van waiting to take it to a funeral home.

Troy Cross, 11, and his 7-year-old brother Scottie. Their father, Thomas Cross, wanted a "dream house” for his family.


Eugene Kennedy is professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago and the author of "Free to be Human," which will be published in February by Thomas More Press.