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L’Ambiance Collapse, 30 Years

April 24th, 2017 · 17 Comments · Analysis and Comment, News and Events

L'Ambiance

The scene 30 years ago.

It’s been 30 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 City Hall, Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman as well as building trades, labor councils and public safety officials 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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17 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew C Fardy

    My partner Dave Rentz and I were the first emergency responders on the scene. When we got there the building was done and their ere people lying on the ground surrounding the building. I had extra concerns because my brother who was a lift slab specialists was supposed to be working there. I asked the construction people how many people were working there and the management company did not know. I later learned that my brother was not on this job because he did not like the company erecting the building,
    Dave and I left and went down town where heavy cranes were working, we told them the story and described the scene, they took the cranes down that they could and made phone calls for more equipment. The construction industry was tremendous as was the city residents and emergency personnel. I have been in some of the worst building losses in this country during the course of my 40 years in the business but seeing that collapsed building almost as it happened in something I will not forget. God Bless all who died and those who tried to save them

    • Lisa Parziale

      I remember getting the news as Mayor Bucci, et al, did. I remember walking to the site moments after it happened. Lennie and Andy, do you remember a small-framed man called Tony? He stayed for weeks after because he was small enough, as well as brave, and went under the rubble for days.

      • Andrew C Fardy

        His name was or is Tony Tufaro. I will double check with Shawn when he gets home tonight. There was another person that worked with Tony but I don’t remember his name

  • Up On Bridgeport

    David Wheeler. He later died from the demons of his dreams from that experience.

  • Tom White

    Lennie, from the perspective of a journalist, how might the reporting of the collapse differ if it happened today with so much ‘news’ flowing through social media rather than from journalists like Mike Daly?

  • Tom White

    The collapse was one of those events in our lives in which we remember where we were and what our immediate thoughts were.
    I was was working at People’s Bank, driving back to Bridgeport after a meeting in Hartford.
    It was a very busy time at People’s. Mergers and acquisitions along with the construction of the headquarters building. Nearly all the steel girders were in place for about twelve stories.
    On the car radio was an unconfirmed report of the collapse of a high-rise building under construction in Bridgeport. I assumed it was the People’ HQ. There were no cell phones at that time so I prepared to exit I91 to find a phone booth (remember those). A special report was soon broadcast saying it was an apartment building under construction. My relief was tempered when reports later in the day advised of fatalities.

  • Donald Day

    This story doesn’t begin to tell the story of members of the BFD that responded there and crawled in dark spaces of fallen concrete to see if anyone was alive. They did this with little or no training while putting their lives on the line because at the time the BFD offered no confine space training for its members. While I didn’t have to go I know of many that did and their actions saved lives.

    • Andrew C Fardy

      Donald 30 years ago firefighting was in the dark ages and just coming into modern times. Firefighters did what they did because that is who they are. These are the same guys who people see coming out of or going into a burning building and people watching would say I would not do that job for any amount of money. This is the same job where these same people ride by the firehouse and would say look at these lazy bastards getting paid to do nothing.
      This is the same job that EVERYONE of us knows the pride and satisfaction of doing.
      God bless those that passed waya and god bless those that tried to save them

    • Andrew C Fardy

      Don you are 100% right. there was a toll paid after the collapse that no one was or is aware of. I would venture to say that many, many of the workers suffered from Post Traumatic problems. What they saw , no human should see that. The workers were also subject to toxic dusts. That building collapse effected many people and still does today.

  • flubadub

    “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” – Mother Jones 1902.

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