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Huge truss collapse kills 1

Safety rigs save 2 100 feet above Lawrence convention center

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

A 90-foot-tall steel truss at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, part of which is due to open in 10 days, crashed to the ground yesterday, killing one worker and injuring two others.

The collapsed truss consisted of a series of "triangles" made of steel beams. It weighed about 165 tons. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Killed was Paul Corsi, 37, of Moon, a member of Ironworkers Local 3, who had worked on the convention center steel since last summer. He was employed by Dick Corp., which is working for the Sports & Exhibition Authority to erect the structural steel for the giant $332 million center.

The section that collapsed was part of the third phase of the project, which isn't to be completed until spring of 2003.The first phase of the center -- the western portion, closest to Garrison Way -- is set to open Feb. 23 for the annual recreational vehicle show. It includes 80,000 square feet of exhibit space on the first floor and 40,000 square feet on the second floor.

  More on this story

This article is based on the reporting of staff writers Tom Barnes, Johnna A. Pro, Cindi Lash, Dennis B. Roddy and Dan Gigler.

Click here for a special photo journal.

Click here for a map of the accident site.

Click here for a visual explanation of what happened.

Click here for a history of plans to expand the convention center.


Stephen Leeper, the sports authority director, said he didn't expect a delay in that show. The cause of the accident was under investigation.

"Somewhere there was a structural failure and the truss collapsed," said John Stanich, Dick Corp. senior vice president.

Stanich said the truss that fell was in a stationary, vertical position. It was the 13th of what eventually will be a series of 15 trusses running north to south. The series of trusses supports the floors and the sloping, cable-stayed roof of the building.

Ironworker Donald Lenigan, 41, was working on the 12th truss and Corsi was on the 13th. Both were wearing safety harnesses, Stanich said. They were attaching the vertical truss to horizontal floor beams with bolts about an inch in diameter.

The trusses, fashioned from steel beams and forming a series of triangles, appear to lean out at an angle toward the Allegheny River. Each is about 100 feet long, 90 feet high and 165 tons, said Art Hunkele of Turner Construction Co., construction manager for the sports authority on the project.

When the 13th truss began to collapse, Lenigan was saved by his harness, but Corsi "fell with the truss," Stanich said. He could not explain why Corsi's safety harness failed to save him.

Lenigan and another worker, Walter Pasewicz, were left dangling more than 100 feet above the ground as the truss fell. Lenigan said he heard a crash behind him as the section began to fall.

"I knew what it was -- I was just trying to get away from it," said Lenigan, who was treated at Allegheny General Hospital. "I got my leg banged up."

Pasewicz, 39, of West View, was admitted in fair condition after complaining of a back injury. Hospital officials said he was able to walk from the accident scene to a waiting ambulance.

Another construction worker, who did not give his name, was in the hospital's emergency room minutes after the accident, holding several large bolts that had apparently snapped loose as the truss pulled away from the rest of the convention center.

"They heard pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, as the bolts sheared off," said Timothy G. Uhrich, an Allegheny County deputy coroner. He was one of dozens of city, county and federal officials who rushed to the scene as reports of the collapse spread.

The structure tipped forward toward the river, then collapsed to the left or the west, crushing Corsi underneath. He died at the scene of massive injuries and workers had to cut away the twisted wreckage to free his body.

The accident occurred at about 3 p.m. at the site between Penn Avenue and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, where approximately 400 people were working.

"The first noise I heard was something you'd expect to hear at a construction site, like steel hitting steel, but louder," said Angelle Guyette of Lawrenceville, who was in her car on Penn Avenue.

"I looked up and saw the crane hook bouncing. It looked like they must have dropped something. The whole structure was doing a slow curl down and when it hit the ground it shook my car. Picture an upside-down L, with the short part facing left into the building, curling forward taking the whole rest of it down with it."

Leeper and other sports authority officials were inspecting the first phase of the new center yesterday afternoon, the section where a recreational vehicle show is to open next week, when they heard a crash in the eastern part of the construction site.

Richard Stanizzo, a leader of the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council, said the apparent pulling away of the new steel from the completed portion of the building would explain the reports of broken bolts.

"Once it starts to pull away, all that weight gets transferred. Each individual beam can't hold that weight up. It's like dominoes falling," said Stanizzo. "It just starts to shear."

Richard Marshall, a news anchor and producer for WAMO Radio, was on the phone in his office at 960 Penn Ave. when he heard a blast coming from the direction of the convention center.

"We hear these things from time to time over there [at the construction site]. They even have shaken some pictures off our walls," he said. "But this was different. This was a huge explosion, maybe 10 to 15 seconds long."

No work on the structural steel will occur today, but workers on the nearly finished first phase will show up today and decide on an individual basis whether to work, Leeper said. There also will be grief counselors on site, Stanich said.

Uhrich said the coroner's office likely will convene an inquest into the accident.

Ed Selker, assistant area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said his agency immediately sent two investigators to the convention center. Other investigators were expected to join them today.

"It's such a chaotic situation, I don't know how much we will be able to do at first," said Selker, whose investigators will be assigned to determine if OSHA regulations were violated and, if so, whether that contributed to the collapse.

"But we will talk to the witnesses and investigate the circumstances -- what happened, what people were doing when it happened and what they did then," he said.

Among those at the scene was the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"So many of the construction workers help us with our creche," said Lengwin, referring to a replica of the Vatican creche erected annually in the plaza at the U.S. Steel Tower. "I wanted to be here to offer my prayers."

Corsi, whose family is from Aliquippa, purchased a home in Moon in October 2000. The sellers, George and Pamela Snarey, won about $9 million in the Pennsylvania Lottery in 1997, then moved away. Neighbors said Corsi shared the home with a woman and teen-age girl.

"I'd met him out in the yard, but I can't say I knew him well," said neighbor Matthew J. Welch Jr. "He seemed very nice, but he hadn't been here long."

"We knew them to smile and wave and admire their new puppy, but that was about it," said next-door neighbor Debbie Doerr. "They were very nice, but quiet, very reserved. The whole neighborhood is kind of that way. It's awful how the luck at that house ranges from one extreme to the other."

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