UC Berkeley News


 The Engineering Materials Laboratory (seen here circa 1933, two years after the fatal roof collapse that marred its construction) was an impressive structure when completed. Designed by George Kelham, who also did McLaughlin Hall at the same time, it extended from Hearst Avenue south to the present-day site of Bechtel Engineering Center (Photo courtesy the Bancroft Library)

The day the roof fell in
A serious campus accident in 1931 inspired the university to incorporate engineering into construction

| 05 April 2006

Seventy-five years ago this week, a campus construction accident caused the death of three workmen and injuries to many others. Though apparently unique in terms of its toll, and largely forgotten today, the accident is by all accounts the most serious ever to occur on the Berkeley campus.

The accident occurred at a new civil-engineering laboratory under construction just northwest of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building - one of three new facilities for engineering programs in the era, along with McLaughlin Hall and an addition to Hesse Hall, that were part of a Depression-era campus building boom funded by a combination of State bonds and private gifts.

Just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8, 1931, as pouring of concrete to form the roof was nearly complete, "a small section gave way, followed almost immediately by the entire roof," reported the Daily Californian the next morning. "Men working below the forms and upon them were carried down into the open basement and buried."

An area of roof some 34 by 99 feet had failed, at a height above ground level of about 60 feet. The wooden forms to contain the wet concrete for the roof were held up by a temporary framework of supports called shores.

"I saw the shoring at the top start to crack and the bracing begin to splinter," reported University inspector F. A. Brady, who was climbing the outside of the building when the collapse occurred. "Within a few seconds, not more than three, the cracking and splintering had extended to the lower floors ... the concrete began falling through."

At least 11 workers fell the 20-odd yards to the ground. Ambulances and fire engines sirened through the streets and campus. Berkeley firemen, on- and off-duty city and campus police, uninjured construction workers, and student volunteers labored until dark to rescue the workers as a large crowd of spectators gathered.

"Nearly all the men taken from the building had been buried in the debris and were unconscious or only semi-conscious when recovered," the Daily Californian reported. "They were covered with concrete slime, concealing the extent of their injuries."

Oaklanders Americo Cabrol and James Riley died within hours, while R.V. Ferrall succumbed to internal injuries a few days later. Several workers were seriously hurt.

An investigation by the state Industrial Accident Commission that opened on campus on April 13 would fail to pinpoint the cause, or causes, of the accident. Though one injured worker told the press that "the shores were too long and there were not enough of them," expert testimony at the inquiry indicated that the scaffolding and shoring should have been sufficient to take the load.

Should have been - but were they? That testimony was at variance with the later recollections of Morrough "Mike" O'Brien, a member of the engineering faculty at the time of the accident who later served with distinction as the department's dean (1943-59). In his later oral history, recalling the events of March 8, 1931, O'Brien said: "They were pouring the roof of the building, and they had scaffolding running that whole distance....[Two] of our professors, [George] Troxell and Harmer Davis, had looked in a couple of times, and they were worried about this scaffolding being so high. And sure enough, what they thought about it developed. When they were pouring the roof, as the concrete load developed, finally the scaffolding buckled, and the men and concrete were dumped through three floors down to the bottom. Several men were killed. My office was in the corner of what was the Mechanics Building, and I heard the roar of that stuff falling."

Concerned that construction, as "the payoff of civil engineering," was despite its importance and expense largely under the control of non-engineers, O'Brien secured approval for funding of a single professorship in civil engineering for construction. Today the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's graduate program in engineering and project management has a faculty of 11 and nearly two dozen students.

Other possible causes of the collapse discussed by the commission involved various technical variations on failure of the support system, or speculation that someone or something accidentally knocked a shore loose, destabilizing the supports. (A non-structural theory was advanced by one of the contractors, H.H. Hilp, who claimed that "a foreigner" - perhaps a euphemism for a potential communist or labor agitator - had recently applied for a job on the site, been turned down, and threatened to "get 'em." But his business partner, J. B. Barret, said he didn't think the project had been sabotaged.)

But in the end, the commission couldn't extract a definitive cause for the collapse out of the tangled rubble and multiple accounts. "The investigation which started immediately after the accident has developed nothing which can be said to be the cause of the accident," its report stated.

Whatever the cause of the roof collapse, the walls of the building were still sound, and construction quickly resumed. The building, when completed, housed the campus Engineering Material Laboratory, designed to provide the College of Civil Engineering with the facilities to stay at the vanguard of modern construction research. Materials and structural systems for engineering works of unprecedented size, including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Boulder Dam, would later be tested there.

On an ironic note, the director of the laboratory (and later namesake of the building), Professor Raymond Davis, would earn international recognition for his work there . along with the admiring sobriquet "Mr. Concrete."

More than 30 years later the "high bay" southern wing where the collapse had taken place was demolished to allow construction of the larger "new" (and present-day) Davis Hall. Meanwhile, the truncated northern wings of the original building survived until late 2004. The site is now prepared for construction of the Davis Hall Replacement building, which will house the headquarters of the Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).

Could a disaster like 1931's happen today on campus? Any construction work, including maintenance and repair performed by campus staff, requires adherence to strict safety procedures. Construction-safety practices are extensive and well-regulated, with campus inspection and EH&S staff monitoring job-site safety, along with contractors and other regulators.

From a historical perspective, there are no records of any construction accident on campus of similar magnitude since the 1931 event. It stands alone, one hopes, as a grim day of accidental death on the central campus.