It’s a story that drives tour guides and engineering historians crazy: a worker falls into a pool of wet concrete that’s being poured into a column 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, otherwise that section would have to be redone. So, rather than digging 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 Westinghouse Bridge in East Pittsburgh is no exception. Depending on who’s telling the tale, there are one to four workers entombed in the concrete bridge supports that hold up that famous Pittsburgh span.
Built from 1929 to 1932, the George Westinghouse Bridge was an engineering marvel in its day. Soaring 240 feet above Turtle Creek Valley, its five spans of reinforced concrete––including a 460-foot central span–– reached a total length of 1,598 feet. When it opened, it was the longest concrete arched bridge in the country. It remains one of the longest to this day, nearly 85 years later.
Many workers died during the building of highways, bridges, dams, and other major construction projects during this period, but there is absolutely no evidence at all that any workers were ever entombed in poured concrete. Not in the Brooklyn Bridge, not in Hoover Dam, and not in our beloved George Westinghouse Bridge.
“But Professor,” you might ask, “wouldn’t the bosses and construction companies naturally suppress the news of such a tragic death in order the keep the building process going?” Maybe. That sort of craven capitalism is a moot point when we consider the structural integrity of concrete.
The reason we know this type of death did not happen is solved not by morality, but by science. Any object falling into wet concrete would create air pockets, and air pockets of any size would create weaknesses in the integrity of the compound. The structural stability of the concrete would have been compromised by having human remains encased in it. A massive structure like the Westinghouse Bridge would have crumbled and collapsed if there had been a body in any part of the poured concrete, after that concrete hardened. The hundreds of thousands of pounds of traffic that cross Westinghouse Bridge daily would cause the compromised concrete to crumble, resulting in a cascade of collapse.
As previously noted, many workers perished completing massive construction projects. The industrial death toll at Hoover Dam hovers around 100, depending on which source you consult. Somewhere between 20 and 30 workmen died while building the Brooklyn Bridge, including those who drowned or developed decompression sickness (better known as Caisson disease or the bends). By comparison, conditions at Westinghouse Bridge were extraordinarily safe. There was one death during its construction, when a worker slipped and fell in December, 1931, but he landed on the cold, hard ground, not in wet concrete.
So, despite the stories you may have heard at family gatherings, your old Uncle Stas isn’t entombed in the Westinghouse Bridge. Your Aunt Stella poisoned him, and he’s buried in the back yard.