Was the march of progress that heartless?

It’s a story that drives tour guides and historians of engineering crazy. A worker falls into a pool of wet concrete that’s being poured as part of a major construction project. Before he can be saved, his body slips beneath the surface and he drowns in the thick soup of the concrete.

Pouring concrete is a slow and tedious job, and once “the pour” is started, it can’t be stopped without ruining the whole block, and that section of the project has to completely re-done. So, rather than dig the dead workman out of the concrete pool, construction supervisors and bosses let the body sink further into the concrete, and the poor workman gets entombed forever in the structure he was helping to build.

This tale is told of nearly every major concrete structure built in the modern age. And the story almost always contains the same elements. (By the way, Buzzkillerss, “having the same elements” is usually one of the signs of a widespread urban legend.) These story elements include: the integrity of “the concrete pour” can’t be compromised; and as tragic as the death of the worker is, modern industrial-age projects must go on unimpeded.

Were the bosses that cold? Was the march of progress so heartless?

Many workers died during the building of highways, bridges, dams, and other major construction projects, but there is absolutely no evidence at all that any workers were entombed in poured concrete. None. Not in the Brooklyn Bridge, not in the George Westinghouse Bridge in Pittsburgh, and not in Hoover Dam, which are the places where these stories are most prevalent.

But Professor, you say, the bosses and construction companies would suppress the news of such tragic death in order the keep the building process going. Maybe. But that’s not the main reason that we know that these types of deaths never happened.

The main reason is that the structural integrity of the concrete would have been compromised by having a human body encased in it. Even a massive structure like Hoover Dam would have crumbled and collapsed if there had been a body (or even a single shoe) in any part of the poured concrete, even after that concrete hardened.

Here’s a more detailed, structural engineering explanation of why this would happen. A human body falling in wet concrete would create air pockets. And if the body started to decay, a large air pocket roughly six feet by two feet would form. That’s nothing compared to the size of Hoover Dam or the Brooklyn Bridge, you say? Well, remember that a major dam is trying to hold back many millions of tons of water. And a bridge has to hold up a very heavy superstructure.  The pressure on the concrete blocks in each case would be massive. An air pocket of any size would create a weakness in the integrity of the concrete block. Even a small weakness in one concrete block would cause that block to fail. It would crumble, all the blocks around it would then crumble, and it all would result in a cascade of collapse.

Remember, Buzzkillers, I said at the beginning that lots of workers were indeed killed on massive construction projects. The death toll at Hoover Dam varies between 96 and 112, depending on which source you consult. Somewhere between 20 and 30 workmen were killed while building the Brooklyn Bridge, and 12 pedestrians were killed in a panicked stampede a week after the bridge opened. Deaths at these major structures included workers falling off bridges, being crushed or mangled by equipment, and sometimes buried under collapsed parts of the construction site. Such was the case at the Fort Peck Dam, built in Montana from 1934-1940. In September 1938, a section of the still-uncompleted dam failed, broke away from the rest of the dam, and a massive amount of earth and boulders buried eight workers as it collapsed into the lake. Two bodies were recovered but, despite all best efforts, six bodies were never found. So they are entombed in the Fort Peck Dam, but that was a very different case than the “entombed in concrete” story.

 

Further Reading:

Brooklyn Bridge:

David McCullough, The Great Bridge (1972)

Richard Haw, The Brooklyn Bridge: a Cultural History (2005)

 

Hoover Dam:

Andrew Dunar and Dennis McBride, Building Hoover Dam: an Oral History of the Great Depression (1993)

Michael Holt, Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century (2010)

“Tomb of the Dammed: Are bodies of workers entombed in the Hoover Dam?”

 

George Westinghouse Bridge, Pittsburgh:

Franklin Toker, Pittsburgh: an Urban Portrait (1986)

Historic American Engineering Record George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge