Skyline Towers collapse

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Skyline Towers collapse
Firemen bring out a worker injured in the collapse
Date 1973-3-2
Location Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia
Coordinates 38°50′39″N 77°07′15″W / 38.84415°N 77.12074°W / 38.84415; -77.12074
Cause Building collapse due to premature removal of shoring
Outcome 14 construction workers killed, 35 injured

On March 2, 1973, the 26-story Skyline Plaza apartment building, under construction in Bailey's Crossroads in Fairfax County, Virginia, collapsed, killing 14 construction workers and injuring 35 others.[1][2]


The construction of the Skyline Plaza began in the early 1970s. The site was just south of Bailey's Crossroads in Northern Virginia, on the site of the Washington-Virginia Airport. It sat on a prime piece of real estate that bordered both Seminary Road and Route 7.

Skyline Center, location of Skyline Plaza, was going to be one of the largest complexes in Northern Virginia at the time. The building that collapsed was to have contained 468 condominium apartments.[3]

The building was set to open in August 1973. All condominium apartments had been sold and ranged in price from $23,000 to $62,000 according to the sales office.[4]

Plaza was the second major fatal accident involving Smith projects within five years. In June 1968, two floors caved in at a Crystal City office building, killing three men and injuring 29 others. Arlington County investigated the incident and blamed the accident on insufficient wooden shoring to hold up concrete being poured to form the floor above it.[3]

Martin Lowton, 56, of Alexandria, Virginia, was inside the Skyline Plaza Tower 1 when it collapsed in 1973. He huddled under a fourth-floor staircase as concrete fell around him. He was able to escape after digging himself out of knee-deep rubble. Lowton said he was also on the construction crew at the Crystal City building collapse in 1968.[5]

What happened?[edit]

The building collapsed while shoring was being removed from newly poured concrete between the 22nd and 23rd floors of the building and more concrete was being placed on the 24th floor. A climbing crane on the 24th floor fell to the ground in the collapse.[1][6][7] It was initially falsely assumed that the collapse was related to the fall of the crane.[7] The collapse left a gap 60 feet (18 m) wide in the building from top to bottom, leaving it looking like two separate buildings.[1][6]

A Fairfax County police officer witnessed the collapse and radioed the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at 2:18 p.m. Units responded from Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria, Virginia.[2][8]

Fifty-five men were working in the area according to local officials. The day following the collapse, it was speculated that the cave-in stretched all the way to the second or third basement floor.

Witness accounts[edit]

Larry Rivers was working in the basement of the building when the cave-in began. He said "We had about two seconds warning...a rumbling sound like Niagara Falls. I ran for my life. I looked back and saw four of my buddies being crushed by the concrete. It was sickening."

Michael Hill, 31, was standing on the 23rd floor when he saw the ceiling cracking. He ran for the stairs. He said, "I got down to the fourth floor and it was coming in from the center. So I jumped out the window." Hill landed on his stomach and suffered two broken arms, cuts, and bruises.

Joe Taylor was operating a crane located on the 24th floor. Eyewitnesses said that the crane dropped floor by floor during a two to three minute period and finally toppled over as it hit the ground in a cloud of dust. He and another worker, Daniel Moquin, were rescued from the building by an Army helicopter from Fort Belvoir after they sent down a note saying "For God's sake, please get us off of here." Taylor said, "...Somebody hollered that the building was sinking in. I knew all that weight couldn't stay up there so I started to find a way to get down myself. But the stairs were blocked. There was a loud popping, cracking sound as the floors gave way one after the other."[9]

Norma James lived about three blocks from the site of the collapse said it sounded like "an airplane going very low over my house about to crash. I was too scared to move. When I did go outside the debris was so thick it burned my eyes. It took about five minutes before the air was clear enough to see the building."[5]

Colin Povey, a senior at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, saw the crane fall. "I heard a loud rumble and looked outside. The tower crane was at about a 45 degree angle and looked just like a knife slicing through the building. A cloud of dust rose up immediately afterward. I and a lot of other students went to the church lot across Virginia Route 7 immediately after school let out at 2:30 PM to see what was happening. Most of the students heard the crane collapse, but I was in one of the few rooms that had an unimpeded view of the tragedy. I remember that the McDonald's restaurant adjacent to the construction site served free food for days to the rescue workers, and that Route 7, a major highway in the area, was closed for weeks afterward as they hauled debris away."

Personal stories[edit]

Nancy McGuire, 29, of Falls Church, Virginia, planned to marry Clemons Holcomb, 27, of Arlington, Virginia, on March 3, 1973 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

At 12 p.m. on March 2, 1973, McGuire sat with Holcomb while he took a lunch break from his construction job at Baileys Crossroads.

A few hours later, McGuire came to Fairfax Hospital to learn that there would be no wedding because Clemons Holcomb was dead.

Clemons Holcomb was employed by Miller and Long Construction Co. and was killed in the collapse of the 26‑story apartment building under construction as part of the Skyline Center development in Baileys Crossroads.[10]

Joe Bergen, 29, worked as a mechanic's helper for the Otis Elevator Company. He was working at the Skyline Plaza site on March 2, 1973. When the Skyline Plaza at Bailey's Crossroads collapsed, it left him partially buried under a pile of lumber and concrete at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

When they finally got to Bergen in the rubble of the collapse and took him out, they found both his forearms severely fractured, his skull fractured, injuries to his abdominal area, multiple abrasions and contusions and a conglomeration of dust, dirt and chips of concrete in his lungs. One chip of concrete was not removed until November 1973, nearly nine months after the accident.

Bergen spent 21 days at Arlington Hospital after he was pulled from the rubble and for nine of those days, he was in a coma. After being released from the hospital, he spent weeks in a wheelchair and bed. Doctors' reports say that the concrete chip that remained in his lung caused violent coughing spells and chest pains.

Bergen said he would wake up in the middle of the night coughing and was unable to keep food down. He claimed that his weight dropped from 170 to 128 pounds.

He cannot remember anything about that day, but he discovered through friends and relatives the pain and horror he must have endured. They are the ones who told him that his best friend, Danny Wilhite, was crushed to death beside him in the elevator shaft.

Prior to the accident, Bergen was making $240 a week and after the accident he only got $160.27 a week in workman's compensation payments. The maximum disabilities at the time in Virginia for Bergen's salary was $70. He got an additional $90.27 from Washington, D.C. through his union, bringing his total to $167.27 a week. In Maryland at the time, the maximum disabilities were $96 a week and in Washington, D.C. they were $167 a week.

Bergen's attorneys filed a $5 million lawsuit against nine companies in April 1973, but the court ruled in November of that year that the four major companies involved were protected under the Virginia statute that says "a worker cannot sue his employer or companies closely related to the work of his employer if they contribute to the workman's compensation fund". According to Joseph H. Koonz, Bergen's attorney, "If this accident had occurred in Maryland or Washington, Bergen would not have any difficulties in pursuing a claim for damages."

Michael Frye, 22, was working a grinding machine in Skyline Plaza on March 2, 1973. The machine was very loud and made a lot of dust. Frye's father, James H. Frye, 49, said "Mike was working alone. Some workers said that as they ran down the stairs they saw him working right under where the collapse was starting higher up. He just smiled and waved at them and kept on working. He couldn't hear them shouting."

Michael's family said "We had a call that first night that Mike was all right." Apparently, someone said they saw Mike crawling towards the McDonald's hamburger stand which was adjacent to the work site. Michael's family searched the area around the McDonald's and the wooded area behind it for two to three days hoping they would find Michael.

The workers compensation awarded to Michael's family for the loss of his life was minimal. Michael's father stated that "the court awarded us a total of $7.70 a week for 300 weeks for the entire family, plus $800 burial expenses and some money for legal expenses". The total is $3,660 over almost six years.[11]


Fairfax County hired Professor Ingvar Schoushoe of the University of Illinois, Urbana, a civil engineer, to investigate the cause of the collapse. He determined that the collapse occurred because of the premature removal of shoring from beneath newly poured floors.[6][12][13]

George Taylor, a workman for Northwest Sheet Metal, Inc., claimed that workmen were pulling concrete supports "out too damn fast. They're trying to hustle the job too damn fast."[3]


Marvin Dekelboum, executive vice president for the Smith Co., estimated the property damage at $12.5 million of the $24 million apartment building.[3]

The concrete subcontractor at the Skyline Plaza condominium complex, Miller & Long's vice president Roger Gilbert Arnold was indicted on manslaughter charges for the deaths of Danny Ray White, Clemons Riley Holcomb, and Daniel R. Wilhite. Arnold was charged because, as the senior Miller and Long official present he was responsible for the actions of the men who removed the shoring. The maximum punishment for felony involuntary manslaughter was 1 to 5 years imprisonment.[12] Arnold was later acquitted of all charges.[11]

Miller & Long was fined $300 for failing to use adequate shoring beneath newly poured concrete floors. It was ruled by a judge that the building's owner, the Charles E. Smith Co., could not be held criminally responsible for the actions of its subcontractors.[13]

Federal officials charged Miller & Long $13,000 for violations of worker safety codes.[11]

Fairfax County barred resumption of construction at the site for 16 months following the accident. Permission to resume construction was later granted. Work resumed in July 1974 and was completed in 1977.


  1. ^ a b c Feld, Jacob; Carper, Kenneth L. (1997). Construction Failure (second ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 242–245. ISBN 0-471-57477-5. LCCN 96033425. 
  2. ^ a b Del Giudice, Vinny (February 11, 2005). "High-Rise Fires and Emergencies". Arlington Fire Journal. Retrieved May 14, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d "5 Dead, 12 Missing in Collapse of High-Rise" The Washington Post, March 3, 1973: A1
  4. ^ "Skyline Records Sealed" The Washington Post, March 6, 1973: A1
  5. ^ a b "Workers Leaped, Ran for Their Lives" The Washington Post, March 3, 1973: A1
  6. ^ a b c Ross, Steven S. (1984). Construction Disasters: Design Failures, Causes, and Prevention. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 266–269. ISBN 0-07-053865-4. LCCN 83016215. 
  7. ^ a b Kaminetzky, Dov (1991). Design and Construction Failures: Lessons from Forensic Investigations. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 64–67. ISBN 0-07-033565-6. LCCN 90046691. 
  8. ^ "Fire and Rescue History - Fairfax County, Virginia". County of Fairfax, Virginia. Retrieved May 14, 2013. 
  9. ^ "5 Dead, 12 Missing in Collapse of High-Rise" The Washington Post, March 3, 1973: A1.
  10. ^ "Disaster Kills Arlington Man, Ends Couple's Dreams of Wedding Today" The Washington Post, March 3, 1973: A6
  11. ^ a b c "Man Battles with Tragedy" The Washington Post, August 3, 1974: D1
  12. ^ a b "Fairfax Collapse Laid to Builders" The Washington Post, April 28, 1973: D1
  13. ^ a b "Concrete Firm Fined $300 for Fall of High-Rise" The Washington Post, July 12, 1973: D1

Further reading[edit]