Probe into fatal construction accident could take months

AP News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2015 6:33 PM
Probe into fatal construction accident could take months

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's workplace safety agency said Tuesday that it may be months before it finishes an investigation into why a scaffold with several men on it broke free from the facade of a high-rise construction project and killed three workers.

All work at the Charter Square building in Raleigh has been halted while the State Department of Labor conducts it formal investigation of Monday's accident. Agency spokesman Neal O'Briant said Tuesday that the review might take up to six months.

Under state law, the labor department is empowered to review the causes of the accident and levy fines against the companies involved if any violations are found. At the end of that probe, the agency will issue a report of its findings.

Monday's accident involved equipment known as a mast climber scaffold, which moves up and down a building's facade to take workers to different floors. One of the tracks had snapped off several stories up and fell into a twisted heap on the ground below.

"We just had a mast climber fall off. There were men on it," a 911 caller said, estimating the men fell 200 feet.

The operator asked if the victims were awake, to which the caller responded: "No, they're dead."

Jeffrey Hammerstein, community outreach chief for Wake County EMS, said three men died and a fourth was seriously injured in the accident.

Police identified the dead men as Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, of Durham; Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton; and Anderson Almeida, 33, of Durham.

Elmer Guevara, 53, was rushed to WakeMed hospital. He was initially reported as being in fair condition, but by Tuesday, hospital officials said his name was no longer on a public list of patients. Police cited privacy laws in declining to give an update on his condition. No one answered the door Tuesday at Guevara's home in Durham.

A makeshift memorial was established Tuesday against a light post near the locked construction site in downtown Raleigh. A hand-lettered sign made reference to the victims' reported status as immigrants who had come to North Carolina to work and send money back home.

"While we run from a corrupt government, we put our lives on the line to chase the American dream. RIP fellow dreamers," the sign said.

The accident happened as subcontractor Associated Scaffolding was in the process of dismantling the scaffold on the building's exterior, said Mike Hampton, the chief operating officer for the building's general contractor, Choate Construction Company.

Choate issued a statement saying the company is "deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries."

Peter Thuston was working inside the building installing a security card reader system when the accident happened.

He said he ran outside to try to help and saw three men in safety harnesses, leading him to believe they had been attached to the scaffolding.

"It was just a loud crash and a huge cloud of smoke," said Thuston, 32, of Garner. "I noticed three of the guys and it looked like they were dead."

He said a fourth man, later identified as Guevara, was found on a crushed portable toilet after apparently falling onto it. He was still breathing and had a pulse, but was barely responsive.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show Associated Scaffolding was issued serious safety violations twice in North Carolina in the past 10 years. A 2007 citation says it was related to access equipment for scaffold platforms, while a 2008 citation says the violation was related to storage of welding materials.

People who answered multiple calls at the company's Durham headquarters declined to comment.

Hampton said the subcontractor's only job at the site was erecting and dismantling the scaffolding.

The records show that Choate Construction has been inspected 20 times in North Carolina in the past 10 years and cited for one violation, which wasn't considered serious. O'Briant said the 2014 violation was related to storing flammable materials outside without a fire extinguisher.