Fairfax, The Uprising of the City

The city of Fairfax, Virginia rests near the northern most part and is included in the D.C., MD, WV, VA Metropolitan statistical area. It earned it's name after Thomas Fairfax, who received 5 million acres of land in the Virginia territory from King Charles. The land was settled in the 18th century and became an official city in 1961.

Throughout the 20th century, Fairfax can be described in one word: growth.[1] The increase in demographic numbers tell the whole story. Between the 1930-1950's the population expanded to four times what it was, reaching nearly 100,000 citizens. A large contribution to such growth was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's increase in federal action between bureaus and programs. Populations expanded during the times of war due to the urgency of government action in the area, and even after the war additional employment was given in assistance to war veterans. The extreme expansion of federal employment resulted in the population reaching nearly 500,000 by the 1970's. The increase in population was directly correlated to the fast paced construction of homes and buildings for living and business.

Collapse Picture

The image shows the building after the collapse. It appears as if there are two separate structures.[2]

Background Information on the Disaster

The idea for the project began in the early 1970's and was fairly simple, to build a wonderful condominium in one of the most beautiful and central locations of the city. It would attract a wide variety of real estate business with 468 rooms with prices set between $23,000 to $68,000. The more expensive rooms were equipped with finer kitchen sets, more living space, and a better view of the Potomac river that runs through the city. The Bailey's Crossroad Skyline was going to be labeled as the largest complex in all of Northern Virginia. 

The construction of the Skyline Plaza in Fairfax County came to a halt early in the afternoon on March 2, 1973. It was originally speculated by the workers on site that the crane assisting in lifting materials to the higher sections of the building failed and fell into the side of the building causing the collapse. However, Author Dov Kaminetzky conducted research alongside the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), and published his book, Design and Construction: Lessons from Forensic Investigations.[3] Kaminetzky provides the conclusion of NBS's investigation that the collapse was a result of shear construction error. The building began to collapse as construction workers proceeded to remove the concrete shoring between the middle sector of the building, specifically the 22nd and 23rd floor. The shoring process requires the placement of a concrete structure to support a building while under construction to prevent the collapse of the operation. The result of the collapse took the lives of 14 construction workers and 35 other individuals near the building. With proper critique to policies and evaluation of work orders, further disasters may be prevented in the future in the United States. So how did the investigation of the Skyline disaster in Fairfax influence construction policies for suture projects?

The Investigation/ Shoring

Shortly after the Collapse the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) arrived at the construction site to investigate the possible reasons for error. OSHA soon requested the assistance of the National Bureau of Standards for enhanced investigation performance regarding technical assistance.[4] The NBS team was asked to answer three questions: the cause of the accident, whether there had been violations of OSHA safety standards, and if any violations contributed to the collapse. The NBS investigators reviewed records from on-site inspections, OSHA case records, structural, architectural, and shop drawings, and the results of tests on concrete core samples.[5] During their investigation, NBS used a three dimensional finite element analysis computer system to determine the fault in the concrete shoring. The analysis system provided detailed images of the stresses throughout the concrete systems using data from the concrete beams and plates.[6]

Without concrete shoring construction would not be possible the way it operates today. Shoring is implemented throughout the construction of buildings to support the forms, workers, and fresh concrete at the top level.[7] There are a variety of shore posts (steel, wood, aluminum, etc.) yet they all maintain the same purpose of supporting the project.

Concrete shoring model

This image provides a detailed images of the north view of the concrete shoring layout.[8]

The investigation concluded that the cause of the collapse was the failure of the concrete shoring on the 23rd floor. The concrete poured on the 23rd floor was removed prematurely leaving it unstable to support the weight of itself and the 24th floor above. The loss of support from any one of these columns led to overstressing of the slab around the remaining columns and the failure propagated through the 23rd floor until a stable configuration remained. The accumulation and impact of falling debris from the collapsing 23rd and 24th floors overloaded the 22nd floor slab and induced the progressive collapse of successive floors down to the ground.[9]

Similar Cases

It is apparent that the practices of structural integrity are often overlooked which correlates to the failure of the design. It can be seen in many cases in addition to the Skyline Collapse of 1973 in Fairfax. It comes down to the construction management and policies to maintain proper procedures and ensure the professionalism in the construction industry.

The Chicago Post Office Collapse of 1993 was a catastrophe that resulted in the loss of life and injury of many others due to sheer ignorance to construction policy. After the architect had assembled the design for the building, it was the fabricator's job to fulfill the design order. Instead of following the architect’s beam to column plan of assembly, the fabricator decided on a quicker, simpler route. The design change by the fabricator was made purely for ease of the design and would require less work amongst the workers. However, this alteration of the beams made the use of 1-inch beams impossible and a three quarter inch diameter bolt was used instead. This bolt proved to be weaker and unable to sustain the weight of the structure. The stress applied to each bolt eventually resulted in the collapse of the building. After further investigation, the fabricator was sued and faced many criminal charges.[10]

The collapse of 2000 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston Massachusetts on January 25, 1971 was another disaster due to the incompetence of the workers to follow proper building procedures. It was eventually determined that punching shear of the floor slab at an upper level column was the initial trigger mechanism for the collapse. However, there were multiple attributes to the cause. Most importantly was the improper shoring of the concrete floors which resulted in low concrete strength and improper concrete detailing. This alone induced the punching shear failure on the 16th floor. The multiple flaws in construction procedure, and the disregard for standard building practices were the major contributors to the collapse. Only one employee was present on site for the general contractor, resulting in nearly no quality control or inspection of work.[11]

The First Newspaper After the Incident, Washington Post

The scene at Bailey's Crossroad was masked by chaos, plumes of dust, and debris spread across many blocks. Screams masked by the screeching of the various metals as they tore apart in the uneven distribution of weight in the collapse. Not much could be done except to run away from the dust as it barreled down the streets. The sirens echoed the streets as the police and fire and rescue squadron arrived. Soon to follow were the news casters from all over the area. The Washington Post released a segment within 24 Hours of the incident, which highlights all that was known by those on the construction site at the time. It aimed to provide answers for the eager citizens of Fairfax who were left in fear of the loss of their loved ones. At this time, only 6 of the construction workers were pronounced dead while others were presumed missing. Interesting enough, within 24 hours after the collapse construction worker Ronnie Miller told newsmen that forms had been removed prematurely from fresh concrete and hypothesized the reason for the collapse. The newspaper article provides first hand accounts of the disaster emphasizing the horror that the workers experienced in the short minutes that arguably meant life or death.[12]

Here is the link to a video of the news reports that day:

News Report of Skyline Collapse

The Skyline Work Song

Fourteen tombstones underlie The twisted steel shell. Fourteen souls decry This monument to hell.

Build it high, build it fast; Rush the job, forget the past.

The sky is lined with concrete slabs Hiding the fallen stones of red Covered are the careless maps, Silenced the mournful tones of dead.

Build it high, build it fast; Rush the job, forget the past

Again the stony remains rise up; Public pages print the rage. Not of precious lives lost—but Of avarice uncaged.

Build it high, build it fast; Rush the job, forget the past, reach the sky

The market has no solace For parents, children, sweethearts, brothers. No tears, no memory—by careless Powers grasping for another—yet another

Fourteen souls wander within the shell Asking why they had to die Why the horrible building fell Why no one heeds their muted cry.

“Don’t forsake the sky, Don’t build it fast, Don’t build it high, Don’t forget the past.”

“Don’t replace the beauty of the sky With blueprints, mortgages, and banks; Don’t rush to spill, then hide The blood of the working ranks.”

The day the massive structure spoke, The night was filled with howls. Frantic families begged to a hope From the mausoleum’s  jowls.

Rush the job, forget the past; Damn the sky—build it high!

Oh! Builder, stop lining the sky With certificates of death Builder, take care to test thy soul Against the gods who will be met.[13]

This poem was written by Andrew Solarz, shortly after the disaster. He strives to pass the message that corporations such as those in charge of the construction of the Skyline will stop at nothing to accomplish their mission. The emotion is felt by all as the lives of the 14 workers are heard throughout the song as their lost voices long for justice and understanding of why they had to go down with the building. The poem not only speaks to unite the community with a mutual feeling of disgust with the construction project, but also targets the corporations as well. It targets the selflessness and greed involved with agencies that strive to make their dollar. The collapse would of never occurred if the construction project was never pressed to complete the job at a faster rate and the shoring was never removed prematurely.

Corporations Involved, Policies Set, Concluding Thoughts

The Miller and Long Company was the concrete subcontracting company on the project. The company was brought up by Jack Miller and James Long who established the business shortly after they returned from World War II in 1947. They received a lot of flack as a result of the collapsed and faced a variety of charges. The vice president at the time, Roger Arnold, faced charges of involuntary manslaughters resulting in 1-5 years imprisonment but soon had all charges acquitted. Federal officials filed charges of $13,000 to the company for failure in following proper shoring procedure.[14]Their company still exists to this day their company honors their core values of commitment to training, site management, innovation, quality craftsmanship, and outstanding customer service.[15]

The collapse called attention to the endemic problems of the U.S. construction industry. The contractors and subcontractors are in charge of completely the before works, such as framing and shoring of the concrete; however, they are not responsible for knowing the physics behind loading weight. It is the responsibility of the structural engineer to apply their loading knowledge along with the structural design, but the engineers are not responsible for knowing the design of temporary works. A second is that the field implementation of a design depends on construction quality control, and the degree of care in inspection can vary from project to project. The third is that excessive speed of construction can be dangerous. The Portland Cement Association (PCA) and the ACI both used this case to improve building codes and structural safety.

Statistical data provides that regardless of constructional errors in the past, building collapse still occur at an unpredicted rate. Between the years 1989-2000 there have been 225 building collapses in the United States. The building collapses increase as the years increase despite the revision to construction plan adjustments. Of these 225 collapses, 47 were due to construction malfunctions, 177 due to the service, and 1 collapse in which the cause remains unknown. The reason for such a larger number in failures in the service of the building is due to the fact that there are more buildings completely constructed and in service than those that are still being constructed. This pattern suggests that construction failures are responsible for adjusting failure trends. this research leads to the need to uncover the procedural causes from which the enabling and triggering causes often originate. These procedural causes can be obtained from legal records and insurance claims.[16]

Construction policies have been revised year after year to encompass new possibilities and correct flaws that have led to disaster. These policies must be reviewed and approved by corporations so that each employee must legally abide to them. Author Dov Kaminetsky concluded six lessons to be learned from after the investigation of the incident at Bailey's Crossroad. One being that the contractor on sight should be responsible for formwork drawing and shoring as well as requiring a detailed concrete testing plan. The engineers involved in the project should provide the contractor with all necessary design data so that both minds behind the project are on the same page. The acceleration of shoring removal will most likely result in a building failure and should be accounted for in future projects. Kaminetsky concluded by stating that the top and bottom slab reinforcement around the columns is absolutely necessary during construction projects.[17]

It is evident that these implications and policy critiques have no correlation with the failures of buildings to this day. Regardless of adjustments in management and construction agencies, errors will continue to occur. The skyline collapse of 1973 served as an example of failure of management and of policy. It is now up to corporations of a higher power to implement the lessons learn from disaster into their agenda. Without proper chain of command and a system of checks and balances, the construction will crumble just as the Bailey Crossroad Skyline did.

Personal Experience

The following story is a fictional story of a witness collapse of the disaster and is based on given facts.

My name is Hanrick Giddeon and this is my personal experience of March 2, 1973...the day that shook us all. I remember walking to McDonalds after school with my girlfriend Nancy. She wasn't hungry at the time but my mother had given me my allowance the day before and i guess i really wanted a cheeseburger. She needed to be home so we took the food to go. As we walked down the street away from the little restaurant, we heard a sound so loud that it made us duck down and start to run before we knew what was going on. Nancy screamed and held onto my arm and i remember her trembling. It sounded as if a train had derailed and then continued to explode it was so loud. We turned to face the construction that was occurring 4 blocks down the road from us at Bailey's Crossroad and it appeared to be a large cloud of smoke. Through the dust I could make out that the building that once stood as one large structure now appeared to be two separate buildings. I didn't know what to think and honestly I was frightened. Nancy was scarred too and I could tell because her nails were about an inch deep in my arm. In what seemed like minutes the sirens from all around us echoed in the eerie scene. As the fire trucks and ambulances arrived on scene Nancy and i watched as the thick layers of dust settled on our skin and on the buildings all around us. Nancy was eager to get home and see her mom so i walked her home a few blocks down the way, away from the construction. As i left her house i remember starring at he disastrous scene for what seemed like hours. I was just in awe...

See Also

Normal Accidents by Perrow

Miller and Long Company

2000 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston Mass.

Fairfax, Virginia

Chicago Post Office Collapse of 1993


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