PLEASANTS COUNTY, W.Va. — Forty years ago Friday, a normal day turned to disaster in Pleasants County when scaffolding on a cooling tower at the Pleasants Power Station, under construction at Willow Island, collapsed killing 51 workers.
“It’s never out of your mind really,” Bob Doty, a Pleasants County resident who’s now 84, told MetroNews.
“Every day that you pass Willow Island and see the ring about 160 feet up in the air around No. 2 cooling tower it reminds you of what happened.”
At the time of the collapse on Apr. 27, 1978, Doty was mayor of Belmont, W.Va. and worked for Union Carbide in Sistersville. He received a call that Thursday morning when he was asleep after work.
Word of the disaster spread quickly in his community.
“Not having social media — we didn’t know such a thing — so the telephone was probably one of the things and the radio,” Doty said.
“I lived about two blocks from the firehouse and, the time I drove that two blocks, the radio stations in Parkersburg were on and I had a good idea what had happened.”
What had happened would be recorded as the worst industrial disaster in West Virginia’s history not connected to coal.
In total, 51 workers were killed when a concrete lift in a series being placed as the tower took shape collapsed and took with it to the ground — nearly 170 feet below — the scaffolding around the tower.
“Concrete began to unwrap from the top of the tower, first peeling counter-clockwise, then in both directions. A jumble of concrete, wooden forms and metal scaffolding fell into the hollow center of the tower,” a federal report indicated.
All of the workers on the scaffolding at the time were killed and witnesses reported several workers on the ground were buried in falling debris.
“I remember my mother coming to get us at the school and I was just in gym class and was outside running and I heard sirens, everyone heard the sirens,” remembered Angie Colvin, a resident of Pleasants County, who was in the 5th grade at the time of the collapse.
She lost her father, Larry Gale Steele, along with 12 other family members.
“You don’t get over that,” Colvin said.
An investigation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration later identified several safety issues including insufficient curing of the concrete poured the day before the collapse and problems with anchoring of the scaffolding.
“The main ones killed, a large majority of them, was from here in Pleasants County or Washington County, Oh. which is across the river here or Tyler County, some as far away as Glenville and Salem,” Doty said.
At the time, first responders nationwide were only beginning to implement incident command structures during major disasters.
“We hadn’t been trained yet in that but, you know what, when we stopped and looked back at what was done, I said, ‘The only thing that we had was common sense,'” Doty remembered.
Community members will come together to mark the 40th anniversary of the Willow Island Disaster at a Friday ceremony Colvin is organizing.
Open to the public, it starts at 6 p.m. at the Route 2 monument dedicated in 2002 and Doty is among those scheduled to speak.
The monument started as a social studies project for Colvin’s son, Anthony Lauer.
“When you get older, you want your kids and your grandkids to know who your parents are, your grandparents. Well, my kids never got to experience meeting their grandfather,” Colvin told MetroNews.
She now lives just a few miles from the accident site and, 40 years later, passes it frequently on her way to town.
“You can see on the tower about where the line was where it fell,” Colvin said.
As of now, First Energy is scheduled to close or sell the Willow Island Plant by Jan. 1, 2019.