The Skyline collapse—and property rights vs. human life

Scandals at one level is a beach read, a mix of a suspense novel and one of manners. But at another, it’s about bureaucratic laxness, which can kill workers—not just drain investors’ bank accounts. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico makes Scandals all the more timely. Penny-pinching proved to be lethal. – D.R.

image Fourteen workers died and 34 were injured in the real building collapse that inspired the one in The Solomon Scandals.

The Skyline Plaza disaster at Bailey’s Crossroads in Northern Virginia happened on March 2, 1973—the result, many said, of premature removal of concrete shoring.

Fines amounted to just $300 for the shoring-related lapse and $13,000 for violations of worker safety codes. Not so coincidentally, an even worse disaster followed in West Virginia just five years later, killing 51 workers in America’s most deadly construction accident.

image The Skyline death toll of 14 was minor compared to the calamity at the fictitious Vulture’s Point, the IRS/CIA building that I located in the general area of Dyke Marsh, south of Alexandria. I added a hill and other topographical features missing from the actual site on the Potomac River. The nature-lover in the right photo is “stalking the birds hiding in the cattails.”

Aided by Gordon Batson of Clarkson University and M. Kevin Parfitt of Pennsylvania State University, I came up with my own causes for the Vulture’s Point disaster, which, unlike Skyline, didn’t happen during construction.

The blame game in real life

In real life, the Skyline collapse raised a number of issues that linger on today, such as:

—Who caused the collapse? Was it entirely the fault of a subcontractor? Or did the Charles Smith interests or partners put excessive pressure on the subcontractors to hurry up the job? I’ll not draw conclusions here, just raise questions. Relevantly or not, three men died and 33 suffered injuries in an earlier collapse on June 6, 1968, at Crystal City Mall, another Smith project. “An estimated 100 tons of wet concrete,” reported the Washington Post, “tore through the plywood decking and crumpled temporary supporting 4-by-4 jack posts like match sticks.”

—To what extent under Virginia law should a general contractor be criminally liable when collapses and other accidents occur? In a related vein, would legal responsibility and moral responsibility in these situations always be the same?

—How many construction people were working at Skyline at the time, and how about the rumors that some unknown aliens perished, and that their remains were mixed in with debris and taken to a rural  location?

image—What about the less than fully heeded lessons—as shown by the West Virginia disaster?

—Thinking at a higher level, how about the general issue of property rights vs. human rights?

The last question is on the mind of Jon Stone, the reporter in The Solomon Scandals, as he hurries to the site of the fallen IRS/CIA building. Solomon, owner of Vulture’s, stinted on rebars and other materials. Did his property rights prevail over safety?

Stone recalls similar issues associated with the Kent State massacre, the aftermath of which he reported. The National Guardsmen had killed four students, and debate arose over the value of the students’ lives vs. the need to protect property—the ROTC building had been burned down three days before the shooting.

Jon and his recollections from Kent are fictitious, but I myself reported on the death of Bill Schroeder, an innocent ROTC cadet. “There’s nothing better that [sic] a dead destructive, riot making communist,” one property rights zealot wrote Schroeder’s parents, “and that’s what your son was, if not he would have stayed away like a good American would do.”

For more on Skyline

You can read more about Skyline in Wikipedia, with cites of source news articles. Also see a report on collapse prevention—with photos of actual disasters—from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. You can also read the Beltway Boys blog. One of the contributors lived in the area and remembers the police sirens, the dust in the air above the collapsed building, the helicopters circling overhead. “Something seemed different,” he writes. “Instead of one building, there were two.”

Three relevant books are To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Why Buildings Fall Down, and Collapse: Why Buildings Fall Down.

Beyond Skyline: The concrete and occupational safety issues—downplayed even after the collapse

The Solomon Scandals, while focused on the media and the General Services Administration, could just as easily been about the political pressures at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, especially as weakened under George Bush, although the problems there preceded him.

image Check out a Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette article mentioning the Willow Island nuclear plant construction disaster and Skyline in the context of occupational safety and weak concrete. Willow Island killed more workers than Skyline or any other U.S. construction imageaccident after scaffolding collapsed and 51 workers plunged to their deaths on April 27, 1978. “Agency inspectors,” the Gazette notes of OSHA in Skyline’s case, “cited the Skyline Plaza contractors for premature removal of forms and shoring beneath the building’s top floor, and dismantling these supports without first testing and inspecting the concrete.” But did OSHA take too long to come up with appropriate, concrete-related regulations that could have saved lives in West Virginia and elsewhere? What if the feds had required well-trained company safety inspectors to certify construction sites, for example?

Even to this day, is OSHA doing all it could to protect workers in those situations and others? Is funding sufficient? And what about a court decision that, in the words of reporter Ken Ward’s Gazette series on Willow Island, ended OSHA’s ability to “tie down down contractors through a multi-employer policy. Citations would be issued to general contractors, as well as smaller sub-contractors.” Just as with Skyline, one issue of the Willow Island tragedy was whether the people involved gave the concrete enough time to set. So assignment of blame is no small issue. To better appreciate Willow Island’s human toll, see a Gazette video, shown above.

Will the Obama administration improve OSHA and work toward the hiring of more inspectors? An article in the April 23 Las Vegas Sun leaves some hope: “Echoing remarks she made earlier this week, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Thursday that her department would strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by adding hundreds of investigators and spending tens of millions of dollars on enforcement activities. ‘We’ll have more people out in the field to make inspections, and we’re going to have to be a lot smarter and strategic on how we do that,’ Solis said. ‘We are going to look at industries where you have a high incidence of accidents.’ She said OSHA would focus on the construction industry in particular.”

About the Skyline collapse photo on this Web site (now in the upper left)

The photo was taken by Hai Lew, research structural engineer, Structures Group, Materials and Construction Research Division, NIST, Gaithersburg, Maryland. The photo is part of the NIST report referenced before. The PDF link is here.

Note: This post originally appeared on November 29, 2008 and was updated in April 2009. I’m playing it up again for the benefit of latecomers.

Related: Skyline Work Song: A poem by Andrew Solarz. Also see a video clip from the aftermath of the collapse.

Update, Dec. 17, 2011: Some much-deserved recognition for Ken Ward, the West Virginia reporter who wrote about the Willow Island tragedy, came recently in Brent Cunningham‘s article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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David Rothman

9 thoughts on “The Skyline collapse—and property rights vs. human life

  1. Interesting stuff. Hard to believe the fines for the loss of life were so low. You bring up good points and thanks for the resources for more info.

  2. Yes, that’s just one reason why Skyline was such an outrage.

    The real scandal, however, is that OSHA took forever to come up with better regulations to avoid a repeat–which, in certain respects, happened at Willow Island.

    David Rothman

  3. My grandfather was a crane operator working on Cooling Tower Number 2. To this day to hear the word OSHA will send the fire in his eyes to blazing because as he has stated a large portion of the blame for that accident fell square back on their shoulders and to this day they still have not came close to making amends for what happened. The Governor Tried to get a State Controlled Safety Commission created so that West Virginia work-site practices would never reach this severity again. Still today OSHA is the agency in charge with Sago Mine as any indication Wv Roughnecks still do not seem to have gained much support from the government agencies that are supposed to be protecting them. 30 years later what is it going to take another Willow Island or will it take something like Chernobyl to happen here before the safety of WV workers becomes a priority to more than those of us left to pick up the pieces like I remember seeing in the picture my grandfather took back in 1978.

  4. It was really awesome. I visited the locations after one week of this disaster. Unfortunately I did loss my old friend in this incident.

    Paul Freudenberg

  5. Thanks very much, Paul. I’d welcome more details about your friend and Skyline if you feel like it, and if not, I understand. My sympathy over the loss.

    David Rothman

  6. Dear David,
    Though I was in Texas at the time, I remember the collapse well and the abject stupidity of OSHA. I worked at the time at San Antonio State Hospital as a therapist/caseworker. We had not long before this an inspection by both the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals and by OSHA. JCAH (now JCAHO) said we had to put plastic bag liners in the trash cans to protect the sanitary workers from coming in to contact with “germs” etc. OSHA came by sometime later and said we had to take them out because they constituted a “health hazard” if they caught fire because the smoke from the burning plastic could cause serious lung difficulties or something like that (age prevents an accurate recollection).

    Sad that they were concerned about plastic trash bags but not about rebar and shoring wet concrete.

    Excellent article and I’m glad we’ve re-connected after all these years.

  7. Same here, George. Alas, I’m not surprised to hear the trash-can-liner story. Thanks for sharing it!


  8. Update, January 28: I was unable to reach Paul Freudenberg at the e-mail address he provided, or through a phone call, when I tried today. I do hope he will return to this site and can share further memories if inclined. – D.R.

  9. I was a laborer for the skyline building in 1973 when it collapsed in 1973 and for some reason i was off that day in march.I helped with the removal the form boards. they were removed before there time.

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