Elizabeth Tartaglio and her daughter, Marissa, placed flowers Wednesday on the Atlantic City Workers Memorial, where the name Robert Tartaglio — Elizabeth’s husband, Marissa’s father — was engraved in stone. “It still feels like the day it happened,” Elizabeth said, tears in her eyes. “They say it gets easier in time. It doesn’t.”
Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the Tropicana parking garage on Oct. 30, 2003, which took the lives of cement mason Tartaglio, 42, of Galloway Township; ironworker Jimmy Bigelow Sr., 29, of Egg Harbor Township; ironworker Michael Wittland, 53, of Pleasantville; and cement mason Scott Pietrosante, 21, of Buena Vista Township.
Dignitaries, officials and union members, several of whom wore shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living,” gathered at Tropicana Casino and Resort on a rainy afternoon and marched to the platform alongside the Workers Memorial in Kennedy Plaza, where four of the 28 names are listed next to the date “10-30-03.”
Will Pauls, business agent for Ironworkers Local 350 in Atlantic City and South Jersey Building Trades president, cited a fatal accident just this Tuesday in which a construction worker, Donald Tomaio, 46, of Bayville, Ocean County, was killed at a work site on the Garden State Parkway.
“Construction is dangerous,” Pauls said. “And we try to make it as safe as we can. And we try to learn from our mistakes, too.”
Pauls announced the planned signing into law of new reinforcement standards for concrete, a goal unions have worked with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be enacted since the garage collapse.
“I didn’t know they’ve been doing this for 10 years,” ironworker Joel Cardoso, of Barnegat Township, said of the annual march. “It seems like just yesterday it happened.”
“A lot of good people passed away,” said Bob Greiner, of Atlantic City. “I was off construction, getting back surgery, and I live right down the street at Baltic Avenue and Sunset. I could see a cloud of dust picking up. I walked up, and you know the rest of the story.”
Scott Evans, a then-fire captain and current battalion chief who later served as city mayor, has clear memories of 10 years ago.
“It was undescribable, catastrophic damage,” Evans said. “Sheer chaos, people running in and running out. ... You had a building, a parking garage that was 12 stories high and had 40 stories on top of it, and we knew there was a collapse but we didn’t know exactly where.”
The carpenters union helped shore up three floors and created a safe area, Evans said, “in record time. ... The leadership of these guys was second to none, and it showed on the day of the collapse. We formed a pretty good partnership from the minute I got there.”
Nancy Wittland, standing alongside sons Tom and Michael, emotionally recalled the day she learned her husband, Michael, had died.
“At 5 a.m., I was up packing lunch in the morning and making a cup of tea,” Wittland said. “At 6:30, he was at the front door and said goodbye. I said, ‘Be careful, be safe, I love you.’ He said, ‘I love you, too, I’ll see you tonight.’ I never saw him again.”
When she heard about the collapse, she called his cellphone, to no avail.
“My stomach just dropped, and my heart was racing uncontrollably,” Wittland said. “I think I knew then and there that Michael was gone. I don’t know how. Something just came over me.”
It was not until 3 a.m. that she learned Michael’s body was found, and it was not recovered until 8 a.m.
“He only had 1,200 more hours left until retirement,” she said. “Our dream was to move to Florida, and I tried it for two years, but I just couldn’t do it without him. So I moved back to be close to my sons and their families.”
Richard Tolson, director of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Administrative District Council of New Jersey, said efforts to improve safety at construction sites must not end.
“Until no one leaves home in the morning and never comes home for dinner,” Tolson said, “until we accomplish that, our job is not done.”
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