ATLANTIC CITY - Even though the victims of the Tropicana parking-garage collapse - and the loved ones left behind - will have $101 million to divide, they weren't focused yesterday on the record court settlement.
Instead, more than three years after the construction disaster killed four men and injured dozens more, they concentrated on what was lost - the fathers, sons and husbands who would never come home again.
They discussed the pain of the aftermath - the nightmares, the surgery, the seemingly never-ending recoveries of those with horrific injuries.
They talked about their lingering anger over a construction project they described as rushed and rife with negligence, and the warnings that went unheeded.
"The money doesn't matter. I can never get my husband back," said Joleen Bigelow, widow of 29-year-old ironworker James Bigelow. "My husband and my son's father is gone. My son will have to be raised without a father."
"The money don't mean nothing," added Hassan Ali, 46, a concrete worker who fell five floors and was trapped in the wreckage. "This is a monetary solution, but the healing process has to go on."
Bigelow, Ali and other victims gathered at the gray, granite memorial to the fallen construction workers on Atlantic City's Boardwalk. The night before, Tropicana Casino Resort, general contractor Keating Building Corp., and 14 other defendants agreed to settle the families' lawsuit.
Plaintiffs' attorneys described the award, which covers 36 victims and their families and satisfies all claims, as the largest settlement ever in a construction-accident case.
The money must be paid in the next 90 days, plaintiffs' attorneys said, and will be divided after arbitration of each victim's case. Attorney fees, which require a judge's approval after any judgment of more than $2 million, typically range from 30 percent to 40 percent of the settlement.
Controversy surrounded the case until the end, when Tropicana announced a settlement in a statement about 5 p.m. Wednesday. Robert Mongeluzzi, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said attorneys were still negotiating the language at the time.
Mongeluzzi then threatened to walk out of the talks if the defendants did not move quickly on the deal, he said, but the judge in the case encouraged him to stay. The settlement was finally reached about 8:40 p.m.
"It's ironic that they rushed to announce a settlement in a case where they rushed the construction," Mongeluzzi said.
Ed Wittland, an ironworker, broke his neck in the Oct. 30, 2003, collapse. His father, Michael, 53, also an ironworker, was killed. Wittland said he had no idea what he would do with his portion of the settlement.
"I'm not really thinking about the money. I'm not getting my dad back. It's not going to solve that," he said. "The company has 90 days to pay us. After that, at least I know I won't have to talk about it no more."
The parking garage, now rebuilt, was part of a $265 million expansion at the Tropicana called The Quarter. After a six-month investigation, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that the garage had been flawed in design, execution and oversight, and that basic principles of construction and engineering had been broken or overlooked.
The victims and their attorneys said the Tropicana had been rushing to compete with the upscale Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. The signs of negligence, they said, were obvious and ominous.
"We saw signs of cracking in the columns of concrete," Ali said. "I brought it to the attention of a supervisor and foreman, but it did no good."
Elizabeth "Liz" Tartaglia, widow of concrete worker Robert Tartaglia, 42, said her husband had warned her: "They're going to kill somebody."
"That morning he was very upset. I said, 'What's the matter?' He said, 'I don't know. Something's wrong,' " she recalled. "I spoke to him 10 minutes before the accident."
Michael Wittland lived in Pleasantville, James Bigelow in Egg Harbor Township, and Robert Tartaglia in Galloway Township. Besides them, 21-year-old concrete worker Scott Pietrosante of Buena Vista Township was killed in the collapse.
Another worker, Dennis Butler, 37, who was credited with jumping into the debris and pulling victims from the wreckage, developed post-traumatic stress disorder and stomach ulcers, attorney Paul D'Amato said. He had to have one-third of his stomach removed and died last year - another victim of the collapse, D'Amato said.
Other survivors, such as Ali, who has endured 25 operations and a long rehabilitation, have been treated for emotional stress. Many will never return to work, their attorneys said.
Ed Wittland described himself as 60 percent recovered after his five-story plunge. He spends his time now with his seven children, ages 2 weeks to 14 years.
"The only thing I know is ironwork. My body can't do that right now," he said. "I love being with my kids, but I miss being on the job. I miss the guys, I miss the work, everything."