A Little Wiggle Room
Great moments in building history: Drywall work saves lives
I am a drywall contractor, a relatively safe, predictable profession. One evening, I got a telephone call from an older couple concerned about their living-room ceiling, which had been sagging for some time and was getting worse.
The wife answered the door and brought me into the living room, where her husband was watching TV. It was an odd little old house, and I had to duck slightly in the doorways. When standing in the living room, I also felt the need to duck. The ceiling definitely was sagging.
I pushed up on it in a few places, took some measurements, and came up with a plan and a rough estimate. Before I left, we agreed on a date to start the job, but I felt a little uneasy about the ceiling. During our conversation, I learned that the couple built rocking horses for craft fairs, so I figured they were pretty handy. I suggested that in the morning, they get some 2x4s and furring to make T-supports to prop up the ceiling, just to be safe.
About two weeks later, I showed up with my helper, Ira, to replace the ceiling. The plan was to remove it and see what repairs needed to be made. I figured we would have to remove the plaster and lath, then fur or frame the ceiling as needed.
We removed the T-supports, put down drop cloths, sealed off the rest of the house, and opened the living-room window.
Although the ceiling was sagging, it still seemed solid, no crumbling or loose areas. The walls and ceilings were covered with wallpaper (like a lot of older plaster houses), but the owners wanted only the ceiling replaced. I figured that we should cut the wallpaper around the ceiling edge so that as we tore down the ceiling, the paper on the walls wouldn’t be damaged.
That idea made Ira nervous. He worked close to the doorway, and I worked along the wall farthest from the doorway. We both used the hatchet side of our drywall hammers to cut through the paper and plaster along the edges.
It happened fast. I felt pressure on my left shoulder; then I hit the floor, surrounded by plaster, lath, and dust. I thought I heard Ira frantically calling my name. I couldn’t answer him right away because I had the entire ceiling on my back. At first, I was shocked and couldn’t comprehend what had happened so abruptly.
When I regained my bearings, I told Ira that I was OK. He was all right because he had seen the ceiling begin to fall and ducked out of the room. When the ceiling fell, it started along the doorway wall, where it landed on the handle of Ira’s hammer. As the other side of the ceiling fell, it was suspended 18 in. off the floor, caught on a windowsill near where I had been working.
I could see some light coming in around the windowsill, and I could see that there was enough space for me to slide into if Ira was able to cut an opening without collapsing the ceiling all the way to the floor. I suggested that Ira go outside, reach in the window, and cut out a section just inside the room so that I could crawl out. I was lucky because I was not pinned tight under the collapsed ceiling.
A few moments later, we were standing in the yard with the homeowners, relieved that everyone was all right. After a well-deserved coffee break, all we had to do was clean up the mess because the teardown was done—the ceiling joists were clean, not a nail or piece of lath left to remove.
The couple was very appreciative. I think they thought I saved their lives. I was glad that I was still alive and able to continue doing drywall work—and saving lives.
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers