It Was One of the Deadliest Building Collapses in D.C.-Area History

Fifty years ago, the Skyline Plaza construction disaster emitted a dust cloud so thick that it filled the stadium of Wakefield High School.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue attending to victims in 1973. (Image courtesy of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department)

William Erik Van Dyke was working in a mechanical shaft on the second floor of the Skyline Plaza apartment building on March 2, 1973, when he had the first inkling that something was wrong. 

He’d started in construction a few months earlier, signing on with the Charles E. Smith company to help build the high-rise in Bailey’s Crossroads, part of a larger complex with retail and office space. He’d mostly been tasked with installing safety rails on balconies, but on this day, he was working in the shaft with two other men. 

Without warning, the foreman’s radio started squawking, and the foreman sprinted down a nearby stairway. “Shortly thereafter, we felt a rumbling,” Van Dyke says. “We dropped our tools and took off.”

Shortly before 2:30 p.m., the center section of the building collapsed, beginning on the 24th floor and pancaking down to the ground in just 20 seconds, effectively cleaving the tower in two. The collapse made a concussive boom and emitted a dust cloud so thick that it filled the stadium of Wakefield High School a half-mile away.

Fourteen workers were killed in the disaster, and 34 more were injured, some because they had jumped from the building as it fell. It remains one of the deadliest structural collapses in the history of the Washington, D.C., metro area.

A graduate of Washington-Lee High School (now Washington-Liberty), Van Dyke has no memory of how he and his colleagues got out of the building. Instinctively, they’d run toward the outer edge of the structure. His next memory is standing outside amid the swirling, suffocating dust. “I couldn’t see or breathe,” he says. “We stayed so they could get a head count, but we wanted to get farther away.” 

An ensuing investigation concluded that the collapse was caused by the premature removal of concrete shoring between the 22nd and 24th floors, along with other neglected safety measures. Miller & Long, the concrete subcontractor on the job, was subsequently charged and fined, but ultimately paid out less than $20,000. After several protracted legal battles, most families of those injured and killed received nominal compensation or none at all. 

After the collapse, Van Dyke, who now lives in Kentucky, went into other fields, including postal work and retail, but he eventually returned to construction.

He was working on a rooftop in Washington, D.C., on 9/11. “I saw the smoke coming from the Pentagon,” he recalls. “I saw the streets of D.C. getting crowded as people tried to leave. That brought back a lot of memories.”

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Categories: Local History