L’Ambiance Collapse, 25 Years

L'Ambiance collapse
The scene 25 years ago.

It’s been 25 years since the worst construction accident in Connecticut history left 28 men dead in the collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza, April 23, 1987. I was a 28-year-old communications director for Mayor Tom Bucci. My role was to deal with the media frenzy and announce the dead. Monday morning at 10:30 at City Hall, the Fairfield County Building Trades Council and the Fairfield County Labor Council of Connecticut will be among those paying tribute to the fallen workers, as they’ve done every year since the accident. Here’s how I remembered the days in my book Only In Bridgeport.

They were the most gut-wrenching 10 days in the history of the city. Throughout the Downtown and environs, workers and residents perked up at the sound of the rumble. It was sort of like one of those quirky earthquake tremors or a dynamite blast at a construction site.

It was April 23, 1987. While lunching at a Stratford restaurant shortly after noon, Mayor Bucci received an urgent call. “Get back to the city. It’s a catastrophe.” Bucci raced back to Bridgeport to discover the horror of a massive building collapse. L’Ambiance Plaza, a half-completed rental housing complex on Washington Avenue overlooking the route 25-8 Connector, came apart, burying workers under tons of twisted steel and shattered concrete, the worst construction accident in the history of Connecticut.

Iron and construction rescue volunteers throughout the country frantically and relentlessly searched the ruins for friends and co-workers buried deep beneath the crush. One by one, crane-removed concrete and steel revealed another body. Days into the rescue mission, microphones were dropped between the cracks in the debris searching for signs of life. It was early spring. Raw days, wet nights, an utterly mad life-saving mission.

“Is anybody down there?”

“Did you hear something?”

“I thought I heard something. Maybe.”

No reply.

Bucci delivered the painful news to the grief-filled families of the victims at a makeshift support facility in the Kolbe Cathedral High School. Monsignor William Scheyd called upon the families to hold hands in prayer.

A massive collection of eager journalists, camera crews and photographers covered every possible nightmarish angle, raided city hall offices for evidence of blame, checked the background of construction companies and dueled with rescue workers safeguarding access to the disaster area and grieving families.

“Keep those idiots with the cameras away from us,” some of the tradesmen would say. A television crew had its power cord cut. An Associated Press photographer had his film ripped away.

Sidebar stories filled newspapers across the country. The outpouring of support by ordinary citizens showed a city with a heart. Psychotherapists helped the families of the victims to cope. Psychics emerged from every direction. “This person’s alive, that one’s not,” they would say.

City Attorney Lawrence Merly took on the state’s powerful insurance companies that were balking at underwriting the city’s disaster costs as the struggle to locate the buried workers continued. Speaking before a crew of national journalists, Merly called the insurance companies “barracudas content to allow the workers to rot in the rubble.” Merly’s rhetoric pried loose an insurance fund of more than $1 million to aid the rescue efforts.

What caused the collapse? Builders had used a construction process called lift slab. Concrete foundations for each floor of the building were poured on the construction site, and then I-beams were jacked up and welded into place. Later, federal investigators made the following determination: the jacking mechanism hoisting the slabs had accidentally slipped.

When it was over, 28 men were dead. A court-approved multi-million-dollar settlement that included the city, state, developers and insurance companies provided families a small pill for a lot of pain.

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6 comments

  1. I remember that day like it was today. My partner and I were the first emergency responders at the scene. I called in the first report of what had happened.
    I asked the construction people if they had a list of workers who were working on the building. My brother Tom was supposed to be working there, he was an ironworker and had worked on many lift slab buildings. With no list I still did not know if he was alive or dead. We started helping the injured who had fallen or were thrown away from the building.
    When the FD and PD and ambulance arrived, I was able to then call my sister-in-law and found out my brother was not working at the site. It was a relief but it did not blunt the feelings for those who died or were injured.
    Later that evening I was able to talk to my brother and he stated he did not take the job there because he felt the contractor ran an unsafe operation.
    My heart and prayers go out the those who lost loved ones. I will never forget.

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  2. I too remember it as though it were yesterday. It is one of those events that is seared into your memory banks, like JFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, etc. In one of the darkest periods in Bridgeport’s history, the city and citizens shone brightly. A well deserved salute to the first responders and construction crews who worked tirelessly in an effort to recover survivors and then the deceased.

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  3. I was standing at the bar at JF O’Connell’s waiting for a seat while the L’Ambiance hardhats were finishing up their lunch. It seemed like only a few minutes after they left that Tom Kelly came into the bar ashen faced and announced the men who just left were trapped in the debris. God bless every one of them as well as their friends and family whom they left behind.

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  4. I was working in City Hall and the building shook. We thought it was an earthquake. A few minutes later, we learned of the collapse and walked down to the site. It was very quiet. I still remember that feeling every April and I still think of those poor families. God Bless them all.

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