By Patrick J. Mahoney
Not long after lunch on April 23, 1987, workers returned to their normal routines at a construction site near Bridgeport’s central business district. The site was intended to be the future home of the $17.5 million L’Ambiance Plaza complex. Efforts that afternoon focused on laying concrete slabs for the floors of a 16-story residential building.
Suddenly, at 1:36 p.m., seven completed floors of the building’s structure toppled inward, crumbling into a pile of debris and dust. The collapse resulted in the deaths of 28 construction workers and injuries to 22 others.
The construction method in use at the time was known as “lift slab,” a technique widely employed by Texstar, the project’s main contractor. In this building style, workers pour concrete floor slabs in layers on the ground and then raise them using hydraulic jacks. The slabs then get fastened onto a building’s vertical steel columns. To ensure the safety of the workers during this process, the American National Standards Institute of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established standards that required the lifting system be capable of carrying 2.5 times more than the anticipated load. A major point of controversy in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy centered upon claims that Texstar failed to adhere to such standards.
In the weeks and months that followed the accident, a number of theories emerged as to the cause of the collapse. These theories included catastrophic failure due to a bent support column, an improper alignment of the columns, cracks in the concrete layers, improper curing of the concrete, and a malfunctioning hydraulic lift. But others suspected that carelessness, as well as the building design itself (which had been modeled on 13 other structures built in Connecticut since the early 1970s), ultimately deserved the blame.
After studying the various causes of the collapse, the United States Labor Department (which oversees OHSA) referred the case, and the operations of the Texstar company, to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. In accordance with federal law, the department investigated whether the company had willingly failed to comply with safety standards or was indifferent or had a careless disregard for employees’ safety. If found guilty, the charge carried a misdemeanor conviction punishable with jail terms of up to six months and fines of up to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for the corporation.
No Charges Filed in L’Ambiance Disaster
In the end the federal prosecutor in Connecticut recommended no charges be filed, stating that there was insufficient evidence on which to bring forth a formidable claim. By November of the following year, mediators met with over 100 lawyers representing the victims’ families and the various contractors and subcontractors, and brokered a compensatory deal. The mediation resulted in a $41 million settlement of all legal claims.
Despite the reaching of the settlement, the issue of blame remained absent from the proceedings. Reports noted that the actions and negligence of “numerous parties” contributed to the collapse. Though many expressed anger with the decision, the fallout from the L’Ambiance Plaza tragedy did bring greater focus to issues of public safety and led to a moratorium on “lift-slab” construction until 1994, when the government unveiled new federal safety regulations surrounding the process.
Patrick J. Mahoney is an adjunct professor in the history department at Sacred Heart University. He also writes the Hartford Historic Places column for Examiner.com.
YouTube – L’Ambiance Plaza Building Collapse, OSHA Press Conference, John Pendergrass, Assistant Secretary for OSHA, Ocobter 23, 1987