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Last Victim Found in N.J. Garage Collapse

November 1, 2003

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ Rescuers recovered the fourth and final victim of a parking garage collapse Friday, clearing the way for engineers and safety inspectors to begin the delicate, dangerous task of looking for a cause.

One freestanding exterior wall and several columns still were in danger of falling at Tropicana Casino and Resort. Authorities evacuated a 170-unit condominium building and a landmark restaurant Friday night before attempting to demolish the wall, police Capt. John J. Mooney said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is investigating, had fined the general contractor and a subcontractor for a smaller collapse at the construction site last year.

Workers at the garage, being built for the Tropicana, expressed concern that the project’s design and pace might have contributed to Thursday’s collapse, which killed four construction workers and injured 21.

Paul E. Rubeli, chairman and CEO of Tropicana parent company Aztar Corp., denied the work was being rushed, asserting that the timetable had even been lengthened because of bad winter weather.

Neither the general contractor, Keating Building Corp., nor the concrete contractor, Fabi Construction, had any immediate comment Friday on their records.

The OSHA fines stem from an Oct. 24, 2002, incident in which three workers fell at the site when an elevated walkway collapsed. Keating was fined $1,125; Fabi has contested a fine of $8,375.

Early Friday morning, the fourth victim’s body was found in a crushed stairwell. Because of the location and the danger of the unstable wreckage, it took searchers nearly four hours of cutting through cement and clearing debris by hand to remove the body.

Parts of the wreckage were still in danger of falling Friday afternoon, and engineers and safety inspectors took over the site.

``We still have a hazardous situation here,″ said Deputy Fire Chief John Bereheiko.

Two workers were found dead in the debris Thursday, several hours after the top five floors of the 10-story building collapsed without warning. Another died at a hospital.

Area hospitals reported three patients in critical condition Friday and 11 others in good, fair or serious condition.

On Friday evening, authorities released the names of those killed: James P. Bigelow, 29, of Egg Harbor Township; Robert A. Tartaglio, 42, of Galloway Township; Scott N. Pietrosante, 21, of Milmay; and Michael M. Wittland, 43, of Pleasantville.

James Bigelow ``was a wonderful man, a wonderful father,″ said his wife, Joleen.

At midday, about 100 emergency workers and construction crew members gathered in the street near the shattered garage for a 10-minute prayer service.

Investigators will examine whether poured concrete was allowed to settle long enough before cement masons moved on to the next floor of the 2,400-space garage, OSHA area director Gary Roskoski said.

They have already interviewed a woman who said she heard popping and wailing coming from the garage Sunday but was brushed off when she told a security guard about it. Roskoski wouldn’t say how much credence investigators placed in the account.

``They’re always trying to rush the job to stay ahead because the bad weather’s coming,″ said laborer Mike Shaughnessy, 49, who was on the top floor Thursday when the building fell.

Rubeli said Friday that Aztar didn’t know why the collapse occurred, but he added, ``We will find out what went wrong and it will get fixed and we will get this expansion opened.″

Keating, the general contractor, released a statement calling the collapse a ``tragedy″ and saying, ``Right now, we’re focused on getting all the facts, finding out what happened and helping the families and workers affected.″

Officials with Fabi, the concrete contractor, did not return two messages seeking comment left at the company’s Egg Harbor Township office.


Associated Press writers Jeffrey Gold and Jeff Linkous contributed to this report.

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