April 27, 1978: Willow Island Disaster Leaves 51 Men Dead

Apr 27, 2017

On April 27, 1978, a disaster at Willow Island in Pleasants County left 51 men dead.

Willow Island Power Plant
Credit E-WV / WV Humanities Council

The workers were building a cooling tower at the Monongahela Power Company’s Pleasants Power Station. They were working on scaffolding 168 feet above the ground when it plunged to the ground. Most of the 51 victims were local construction workers. One unfortunate family lost four of five sons, a brother, two brothers-in-law, and three nephews.

The scaffolding failed because the concrete holding it hadn’t been given enough time to cure. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied fines against three construction companies. A federal grand jury heard evidence in the case but returned no indictments.

Willow Island was the worst non-mining disaster in West Virginia history and one of the deadliest construction accidents in U.S. history. It also was another in a string of tragedies that had plagued West Virginia for more than a decade. In just over 10 years, the national media repeatedly returned to West Virginia to cover tragedies like the Silver Bridge collapse, Farmington mine disaster, Marshall football team plane crash, Buffalo Creek Flood, and Willow Island.