Our Man in Arlington

The tragedy occurred just outside our county. But Arlingtonions share with Falls Church and Fairfax compatriots the horror-filled memory of one of our region’s worst workplace accidents: the March 2, 1973, collapse of one of the Skyline Towers. Fourteen workers perished and 34 were injured.

That grim event at Bailey’s Crossroads was recently recalled on the 20,000-member Facebook site “I Grew Up in Arlington, Va.” A stark photo of pancaked portions of an under-construction tower posted earlier by Bill Ewald drew more than 300 comments, many from witnesses.

As reported by the Evening Star, the project by developer Charles F. Smith Co. — begun in 1970 at the site of the old Washington-Virginia Airport at Route 7 and Seminary Rd. — was planned as Skyline Center. It would house 30,000 residents in eight towers, plus six office buildings, shopping and a motel. It included 36-story high-rise apartments and 16-story condos.

Crews for concrete contractor Miller and Long were preparing flooring on the Skyline Plaza North Condominium when trouble hit about 2:30 in the afternoon. “I heard a rumble like a tornado or a train or a plane breaking the sound barrier,” bricklayer Herbert Smith, 42, working on 10th-floor scaffolding, told a reporter. “The walls started cracking, the floorboards started dancing under my feet.”

Fifteen minutes after the noise, floor after floor of the apartment building and adjoining parking lot began toppling in seeming slow motion. “I was riding school bus #724 home from J.E.B. Stuart High School when a police car whizzed by, siren on, very unusual,” recalled blogger Farid Rushdi three decades later. “Suddenly, the local fire company blared its siren and fire engines and emergency vehicles shot in the same direction.” Entering his apartment, Rushdi glanced out the window at Skyline Towers and, using a telescope, observed that “instead of just one building, there were two…. Dust was still in the air and helicopters were circling.”

The recent recollections were still emotional. “My first cousin lost his legs, and his friend Mr. White lost his life,” wrote Brenda Mock Gale Barr on the Facebook portal. “My neighbor and friend Mike Frye was killed,” said Judy Lee Love, others noting that Frye played soccer at Washington-Lee High School (’68). “I was in the McDonald’s next door; terrible to witness and so sad for all those that died,” wrote Cathy Bender.

“We went over that night and saw the bright lights they still had on looking for survivors,” recalled Gail Huneycutt-Iqbal. “My brother saw it tumble from the shop classroom at Wakefield” High, said Cathy Shields.

In the sad days that followed, firemen lay down on ruins of the garage listening for sounds of survivors. Secretary of Labor Peter Brennan and Fairfax County Executive Robert Wilson visited. The construction crews “were too much in a hurry,” one victim’s brother told the Star. “It looked like they were trying to beat the deadline.”

An investigation was opened by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Non-compliance with OSHA construction standards has been identified with regard to formwork, field-cured concrete specimens and crane installation,” said the 1977 report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “Specifically, the construction procedures did not comply with standards for the removal of supporting forms.” The report concluded that “premature removal of forms was a contributing factor to the collapse of the building.”

The onetime home of astronaut John Glenn, on N. Harrison St. across from Williamsburg Middle School, is being bulldozed this week.

Glenn’s wife, Annie, who died this month, famously sat in that house during an aborted spaceflight in February 1962 and snubbed Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who wanted to visit with news cameras. Days later, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Historic preservationists are miffed that county hasn’t planned a marker, and tree preservationists are dismayed that the new-home builder is likely to cut down two huge oaks.