Edward LeBel, 71, and wife Judi, 60, reflect on their memories of surviving the L’Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1987. The LeBels, at their home in Burnham on Wednesday, are surrounded by news clippings they saved from the disaster that killed 28 people. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

BURNHAM — Newspaper clippings scattered across the dining room table of this rural one-story home bring back the memories. A cane adorned with 28 painted stripes honors lives lost.

Central Mainers for the last two decades, 71-year-old Edward LeBel and 60-year-old Judi LeBel recall vividly the April 23, 1987, collapse of the L’Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Their memories have been stirred up after the June 24 condominium building collapse in the Miami suburb of Surfside that killed at least 24 with 124 others remaining unaccounted for as of Saturday afternoon.

“That changed the trajectory in our life,” Judi said, “and it will for those folks.”

As the oceanside community in Florida reels from tragedy, the LeBels say they’ve prayed harder than anyone in Maine. They know what it’s like to go through, and survive, something like this. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivor’s guilt.

The emotions boil up, then they evaporate. Unpredictable. The LeBels shared their story in hopes of riling up local support — a donation to the American Red Cross is on the way — and a yearning desire for those affected to get better support than they did.

When he looks at photos of the recent collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium and its rubble, Edward LeBel sees construction issues. He notices the building did not go up on columns with steel flooring and steel eye beams. LeBel believes building’s architecture was insufficient from the start, although the cause of the collapse remains under investigation.

“A faulty method,” LeBel said. “It’s all dirt and cement. It’s terrible.”

A CALL THAT CHANGED A LIFE 

Working at a Connecticut Stop & Shop grocery store on that fateful Thursday afternoon, Judi LeBel received a phone call that haunts her to this day.

She was told Edward died in a collapse, months before moving into their first house and scheduled wedding day.

Luckily, it wasn’t true. Of the 13 men from Waterbury working at the site, Edward LeBel was the only one to survive.

“That’s a serious psychological trauma to go through,” she said.

Edward LeBel, 71, and wife Judi, 60, reflect on their memories of surviving the L’Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1987. The LeBels are shown at their Burnham home Wednesday with a news clipping that shows a photo of Edward. They saved numerous clippings from the disaster that killed 28 people. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The L’Ambiance Plaza was a 16-story residential project under construction at the time of the collapse. The disaster killed 28 construction workers and is remembered yearly on April 28 as Workers Memorial Day. An electrician working on the building site, LeBel remembers the happenings with graphic recall. He can see the building crumbling before him.

“That’s the funny thing about memory; you can’t really predict if people will have a very vivid recall of events,” said Thomas College Professor Tracey Horton, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and teaches classes on PTSD and other mental health disorders. “When somebody has PTSD, that’s often a part of it. The memory of the event is something that intrudes on them.”

Throughout the building process, LeBel and his foreman, Don Emmanuel, and three other friends had discussed what to do in case of an issue. They surmised that if the building collapsed, they’d just be replaced by other numbered union workers.

Little did they know what was to come, and how they wish their conversations were not a preview of reality.

The day of the collapse, LeBel remembers laying piping through the cement when he felt what he thought was rain.

“It was oil from the jacks they were lifting the building with leaking,” LeBel said. “That was the first sign there.”

Emmanuel went into the building to measure a pipe. Moments later, the building came down. LeBel rushed into the building trying to find other workers. He first found a detached torso, then he heard someone screaming in a tunnel. LeBel couldn’t find him.

“I’m almost reliving it here,” he said.

He screamed for his colleagues.

Don

Cliff

David

Suddenly, David appeared and the two embraced. The damage, however, was already done.

Judi arrived at the scene soon after the collapse. Someone had found LeBel’s wallet and assumed he had died, calling Judi to let her know.

Edward LeBel, 71, and wife Judi, 60, reflect on their memories of surviving the L’Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1987. The LeBels at their home Wednesday in Burnham. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

He didn’t, but the memory is etched forever. They were in the process of purchasing their first home and soon to be married. They are still together 34 years later.

A U.S. Department of Labor investigation revealed the plaza collapse was due to failure of the lifting system in one of the towers and its three upper level floor slabs.

COPING FOREVER 

LeBel was one of the 21 workers who sustained injuries in the collapse, later having his L4 and L5 discs removed in his back. The building had collapsed entirely, he was injured trying to save those underneath.

“It was just horrifying,” LeBel said. “We dug for bodies for 10 days and nights.”

LeBel and other survivors felt helpless. One of his co-workers overdosed on drugs after the disaster.

“We had one meeting with the Red Cross, one with a psychiatrist and they let us go,” LeBel said. “It was freaking horrible, I’ll tell you. Rubble everywhere.”

He also thinks about the some 200 workers that were set to join the construction two weeks following the collapse, how many more lives could’ve been lost?

Edward LeBel returns to the L’Ambiance Plaza site annually on April 23 for a memorial service. Judi does not attend, feeling one of them should be in Maine to continue their new life.

Edward remembers the lives lost with a cane featuring 28 painted stripes to honor each of the lives lost.

Edward LeBel, 71, a survivor of the L’Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1987, holds a cane with 28 painted bands that honor the 28 lives lost in the disaster. LeBel is shown Wednesday at his home in Burnham. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

More than 34 years after the collapse, the LeBels say they cope with post-traumatic stress disorder “every day.” Edward LeBel copes by “changing the subject.” He gazes outdoors and looks at nature, and the couple also confides in each other. The photos stir up the memories, but there are also positives to take away, Judi says. The collapse set up a protocol and roadmap for how to deal with future tragedies, and the family also received letters of support from around the region over the years.

At the time of the disaster and for years later, the LeBels were afraid to seek help for their PTSD. It felt taboo. They hope those involved with the Surfside collapse get sufficient mental health care and feel comfortable in seeking help. The unpredictable nature of PTSD challenges the LeBels at different times, but the happenings in south Florida brought back memories good and bad.

They share their story wanting those in Surfside to know they will be supported.

“They need to know people care about them,” Judi said.

The LeBels arrived in Burnham about 20 years ago, finally finding a quiet place they felt safe. They first moved to Madison, where Edward LeBel found out he had five family members from the town, before settling down in this small Waldo County town. They have three daughters and three grandchildren.

A physical escape from trauma is not unusual, nor is having the newspaper clippings and other artifacts.

“Obviously the trauma is never going to go away — it’s real,” said Horton, the Thomas professor. “Certainly the anniversary or day can be hard for people, so I don’t think that would be particularly uncommon.”

Judi still will not go into tall buildings, fearful they may fall. Edward is a veteran, he served in Germany, and gets help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He briefly returned to work after the accident as an emergency medical technician, but was unable to work long due to the injuries he sustained, an unrelenting symbolism of sorts.

“I live with it every day because of the surgery,” he said. “It hurts every day as a reminder.”

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