January 18: Hartford Civic Center Roof Collapses


At 4:19am on January 18, 1978, downtown Hartford narrowly missed being the site of one of the deadliest disasters in American history when the entire roof of the Hartford Civic Center arena — covering an area of nearly 2.5 acres and weighing 1,400 tons — suddenly collapsed onto a coliseum of 10,000 empty seats.  Thanks to a series of incredible coincidences, there were no injuries associated with the roof’s catastrophic failure.  Only six hours before, nearly 5,000 college basketball fans were sitting under the same roof to watch the UConn Huskies beat the UMass Minutemen by a score of 56 to 49.  Even more miraculously, the overnight crews that typically performed maintenance on the arena’s hockey rink were absent that night, due to a unusual scheduling fluke that left Hartford’s home hockey team playing several away games in a row.  Only two staff members were on the premises at the time of the collapse, neither of them near the coliseum where the roof caved in on itself.

An aerial view of the collapsed Civic Center roof. (Connecticut Historical Society)

When dawn broke later that morning, Hartford residents flooded the nearby streets to gawk at the twisted metal wreckage in complete disbelief.  The Civic Center wasn’t even three years old at the time of the structural failure, having opened in January 1975 to great fanfare as the new home of the New England (later Hartford) Whalers professional hockey team.  During construction in 1974, architects touted the innovative “space truss” design of the Civic Center’s roof, which was one of the first major architectural projects in the region to be drafted with computer-aided design.  The roof design was supposed to support more weight using fewer and less expensive materials, saving the city several hundred thousand dollars in construction costs.  However, after the roof’s catastrophic failure, engineers unanimously agreed that the “space truss” roof design was to blame, due to both inherent flaws in its design and errors in construction by the crews who built it.  The same investigation revealed that while several days’ worth of accumulated ice and snow hastened the process, the roof had actually been slowly but steadily failing from the moment it was installed.

City leaders, relieved at the lack of injuries but shocked at the sudden loss of Hartford’s main entertainment venue, vowed to rebuild the Civic Center as soon as possible — a process that ended up taking two full years.  The Whalers made their temporary home in Springfield, Massachusetts while a newer roof, sporting a time-tested railroad-truss design, was installed.  A massive disaster narrowly averted by providential timing — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Ben Gammell, “Almost a Tragedy: The Collapse of the Hartford Civic Center,” connecticuthistory.org

Gallery: Hartford Civic Center Roof Collapse,Hartford Courant

Ray Kelly, “Recalling Hartford Civic Center Collapse of 40 Years Ago,” masslive.com