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Grief, Lawsuits Continue Over Tropicana Garage Collapse

Wed November 17, 2004 - Northeast Edition
John Curran

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ (AP) When the garage suddenly came tumbling down in a shower of concrete and steel on that clear Thursday morning, it shattered the life of Nancy Wittland.

Her husband, ironworker Michael Wittland, was in there. Cutting railings to fit the staircase of the 10-story garage being built at Tropicana Casino and Resort, the 53-year-old construction worker was buried in rubble when its top five stories collapsed.

They didn’t find his body until the next day.

Her son, Ed, was in there, too. He got out alive, after plunging 80 ft. to the ground. Speared by a piece of steel, he broke his neck, his tailbone, several ribs and suffered a head injury.

One year after the Oct. 30, 2003 accident, the heartache lingers for the families of four workers killed and 20 others injured.

Construction on the garage continues while lawyers wrangle over who is to blame and the federal government’s safety agency prepares for administrative law trials over the citations issued to contractors.

But Nancy Wittland’s life is still in ruins.

“It’s been a horrific year,” said Wittland.

The 2,400-space garage was being built as part of a $265-million Tropicana expansion dubbed The Quarter, for its old Havana theme.

At about 10:40 a.m. — less than an hour after a city inspector had visited the site of the concrete pour and found nothing awry — one end of the building caved in on itself.

Witnesses compared the roar to the sound of an earthquake or a freight train. “The most horrible sound you could ever imagine,” said Joseph Milano, who lives next door.

The cause, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was the builders’ failure to secure floors to walls, which Area Director Gary Roskoski called “Engineering 101.’”

Reinforcing steel designed to connect horizontally to the garage’s walls and vertical columns was never embedded, and cracks that workers had spotted radiating from the concrete columns were ignored, OSHA inspectors found.

Four contractors were cited for safety violations, including concrete subcontractor Fabi Construction Inc., which was cited six times for a total of $98,500 in what OSHA said were “willful” violations.

All four are challenging the safety violation citations, saying they disagree with the findings of OSHA’s six-month long investigation into the collapse.

“The next step is litigation, and we are involved in that now,” said Kate Dugan, spokeswoman of OSHA.

Liz Daley, a contract administrator for Fabi, would not comment on the company’s challenge.

To the families, it was worse than carelessness. Some accused builders of rushing the work to meet a planned March opening for the expansion.

“I’m angry at the contractors and the engineers, even the inspectors,” said John Pietrosante, grandfather of Scott Pietrosante, of Buena Vista Township, a cement finisher who died in the collapse, along with Robert Tartaglio Jr., and James P. Bigelow.

“They weren’t questioning why the construction had changed and why it was being done the way they were doing it. It was all a short cut to get the job done faster,” he said.

Keating Building Corp. spokesman Jason Rocker declined comment for this article. Dennis Gomes, president of Aztar Corp., which owns Tropicana, issued a prepared statement: “As we approached the one-year anniversary of the construction accident, our thoughts and prayers continued to be with the families of the men who were lost or injured.”

Haunted by her husband’s memory in every corner of the Pleasantville home they shared for 33 years, Nancy Wittland sold it in hopes of easing her grief.

“I had to get out of it, the memories were too much,” Wittland said. “It had been my grandmother’s, and Mike re-built the whole thing. There wasn’t a nail mark in there that he didn’t put there.”

Her son’s scars, meanwhile, are both mental and physical.

Ed Wittland, an ironworker, lived for months with a steel “halo,” a metal head-stabilizing device that was fastened to his skull.

“His short-term memory is gone,” said his mother, who spends many of her days driving him to and from doctor’s appointments. “He gets so frustrated because he knows there’s problems. He has these sudden outbursts; any little thing ticks him off. He’s been bad this whole week,” she said.

On Saturday, Oct. 30, victims and their families marked the anniversary in a 6 p.m. vigil on the Boardwalk, at a construction workers’ memorial erected to salute the Tropicana victims and others who died helping build the neon high-rises and other buildings of Atlantic City’s casino era.

Tropicana observed the anniversary by a daylong work stoppage on the garage, spokeswoman Maureen Siman said. Fabi, meanwhile, took out a newspaper advertisement in The Press of Atlantic City expressing its sympathy to the workers and their families.

“Our thoughts go out to the men and their families,” she said.

Tropicana planned to finish work on the garage Nov. 9 and open The Quarter soon after.

Wittland said she will never set foot in it.

“We’re trying to reflect on the families and not on causes and lawsuits,” said lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who represents the families of two victims and 11 of the injured. “That’s what we’re trying to keep in our hearts and minds.”

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