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In the News and Out: Injured ironworker still finds accident site too hard to handle

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Injured ironworker Walter Pasewicz Jr. emerged from a recent hearing on compensation benefits and pulled a small piece of white paper from his pocket.

Walter Pasewicz Jr.

In the news and out, 2002

People make the news. But after their 15 minutes of fame, they often disappear from view. Starting today and running through New Year's Day, the Post-Gazette is revisiting 2002 newsmakers to see how they have fared since their moment in the spotlight.

Day One: Hit by school van, Katlynn still healing

Day Two: Badly burned young man stays upbeat

Day Three: Injured ironworker still finds accident site too hard to handle

Day Four: A trio of tots makes holiday a triple joy for proud parents

His young daughter, Sarah, had drawn a stick figure of a man and the words "Touched by an Angel."

"I always take this with me to these hearings," he said softly, his voice cracking and hand shaking.

Pasewicz, 40, of West View, doesn't come across like a guy who spent nearly 20 years pounding on iron while suspended high above the ground in noisy, dangerous places like steel mills, glass plants and construction sites.

Everything changed for him Feb. 12. That's the day he hurtled 90 feet to the ground while working on the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Penn Avenue, Downtown.

His six-second fall -- he was lashed to a huge steel truss that had collapsed because of faulty nuts and bolts -- gave him lingering neck and back injuries and "traumatized" him psychologically, he said in an interview last week.

"I have a lot of flashbacks of that day, of the exact moment of the accident," he said.

Killed that day was Paul Corsi, another ironworker who also was high above the ground attaching beams together. He was crushed when a heavy steel truss fell on him.

A third ironworker, Matt Abate, suffered back injuries.

Pasewicz has been unable to return to work as an ironworker, and he can't even bring himself to go back for very long to the work site between Penn Avenue and the Allegheny River.

Four times, for about an hour each time, he's gone back with a psychologist, Dr. David B. Shaw, but he can't stop shaking. Now they go to the Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River just so he can get used to looking down from a height and enduring the noise and vibration of passing cars.

Pasewicz said his physical and psychological scars prevent him from working on the "high steel" at construction sites, a job at which he typically earned $50,000 or more a year.

Dick Corp., his employer at the convention center project, last week offered him an unspecified "sedentary job" at the convention center site, "a full-time job offer" with "pre-injury wages," but Pasewicz said he was unable to take it.

One of his lawyers, Craig R. McKay, described the job offer as "disingenuous -- they want him to report back to the very site where he was almost killed."

Pasewicz said it took several months before he could even go up the hill on the North Side where Channel 11 is located and look down from a distance at the construction site along the Allegheny.

Nowadays, he spends a lot of time sitting around the house, waiting for his daughters, Heather, 12, and Sarah, 10, to come home from school. He said he watches TV, surfs the Internet -- looking up other cases in which workers were hurt on the job -- and even reads Black's Law Dictionary so he can better understand the blizzard of legal terms he's heard in the past few months.

He does receive $350 a month in benefits through the ironworkers union, but that's money he'll eventually have to pay back. His wife, Naomi, earns some money working at an embroidery shop, but it's considerably less than he was making as an ironworker.

He received injury compensation benefits for the first 12 weeks after the accident, but they were cut off in late May.

"I hate to walk to the mailbox because it could be a bill I can't pay," he said.

He takes several drugs to combat anxiety and other pills to sleep, which often doesn't come.

He has initiated legal action before a state workers' compensation judge, seeking to restore the compensation for lost wages and mounting medical bills. Workers' compensation Judge David Henry may rule in about 90 days.

Defendants in the case are the Sports & Exhibition Authority, a city-county agency that owns the new convention center, and the Dick Corp., the subcontractor that erected the steel superstructure there.

In late May, the sports authority and its insurer, American Zurich Insurance Co., denied Pasewicz's claim for $662 a week in workers' compensation benefits.

"Although an injury took place, the employee is not disabled as a result of this injury" under the state Workers' Compensation Act, the letter denying the benefits states.

Jeffrey R. Wilson, sports authority counsel in the matter, has declined to comment, as has authority Executive Director Stephen Leeper.

Henry's office is in a building at 933 Penn Ave., about half a block down Penn from truss line 13 at the convention center -- the 13th in a series of 15 north-south lines that form the building's skeleton. No. 13 was the line that collapsed because the wrong kind of nuts were attached to bolts that connected pieces of steel to the ground.

Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht recommended in August that a criminal charge of involuntary manslaughter be filed against the Dick Corp., but District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. hasn't said what he'll do.

"I think about it every day," Pasewicz said of the day that changed his life. He added that he is "still looking for peace of mind."

He said one of the most discouraging parts of his ordeal is the loss of trust in his employer, Dick Corp.

"On a job, you trust you'll get a paycheck every Thursday. You trust you'll be safe when you're 60 or 70 or 80 feet in the air. You trust that your employer will take care of you," he said.

"I hope nobody ever has to go through something like this. I don't understand the legal process well. Perhaps if I had done something wrong I could understand this, but I was just there, tied off 100 percent [to the beam] doing my job."

He said the process of fighting for benefits "is so official." He doesn't feel comfortable in a forum where he's surrounded by "suits and ties," he added.

"I'm just a sweat shirt and jeans guy," he said. "I'm just a guy who goes to work and comes home."

He couldn't estimate just how high his unpaid bills are, but he said they're considerable. His psychologist and neck-back doctor are being paid through a benefits policy with the ironworkers union.

He said his wife and daughters have been a great comfort to him during the long period as he's trying to recover from his injuries.

As difficult as things have become, Pasewicz said he's aware things are even tougher for the family of his former co-worker Corsi.

"I was lucky enough to come home," he said. "I'll be home at Christmas, though I don't know how good a Christmas it's going to be."

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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