The N.C. Department of Labor has asked that Choate Construction largely freeze work on the exterior of Charter Square, the 11-story building that was the site of a deadly scaffolding collapse Monday morning.
The disaster happened just before 11 a.m., as workers were dismantling a “mast climber” on the new office building on the south end of Fayetteville Street. The track ripped from the building, sending a platform falling several stories and landing upside down, killing three men and injuring a fourth.
Several more climbing platforms ring the building, which is nearly finished. The state has asked Choate, the general contractor, to have an engineer assess those systems before they return to service.
“We have asked that the other scaffolds not be used,” said Kevin Beauregard, assistant deputy commissioner at the Labor Department. “We don’t want to put anyone else in harm’s way.”
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It could take three to six months for Labor Department investigators to determine what caused the collapse.
The city of Raleigh identified the workers who were killed as Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, of Durham; Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton, and Anderson Almeida, 33, of Durham. The injured man is Elmer Guevara, 53, whose hometown wasn’t released.
Two of the men who died worked for Juba Aluminum Products Co. of Concord, and one worked for KEA Contracting Inc. of Raleigh, according to Department of Labor spokesman Neal O’Briant, citing “preliminary information.”
The injured man worked for Associated Scaffolding & Equipment Co. of Durham, according to the Labor Department. On his Facebook page, Almeida also said he worked for Associated Scaffolding.
Wesley Almeida wrote a goodbye to his brother on the Facebook page Tuesday.
“I’ll miss you, you were the best big brother I could’ve asked for, you always made me smile, you made the world smile, you are and always will be my best friend,” he posted. His brother’s son would become his own, he wrote.
Guevara, meanwhile, was hospitalized at WakeMed, which declined to report his medical condition Tuesday, citing his family’s request for privacy.
No funeral services had been announced by Tuesday evening for any of the men. A handwritten memorial stood near the site of the collapse.
“While we run from a corrupt government, we put our lives on the line in the chase of the America Dream,” it read in red paint. “RIP fellow Dreamers.”
It’s unclear who placed the memorial, which seemed to refer to some Latino construction workers who are in the country illegally and the dangers they face in demanding jobs. It was adorned by three candles and four yellow flowers, and later bouquets and a stuffed animal.
Search for a cause
Inspectors on Tuesday continued to search for the cause of the collapse. By afternoon, workers had cleared pieces of the fallen mast climber track from a neighboring parking lot, repaired a fence that was broken in the fall and cleared the fragmented glass from windows that were pierced by a section of the track.
Neither government nor company officials will discuss their early findings, but Mike Hampton, Choate’s chief operating officer, said Monday that, Associated Scaffolding, a subcontractor, was in the process of dismantling the mast climbers, which transport crews and materials to different positions on a building’s facade.
The tear-down crew apparently had removed the highest anchor point between the scaffolding and the building, replacing it with a glass panel.
But twisted metal protruded from the next-highest anchor point, several stories from the top of the building, indicating that it had not been removed when the accident happened. The anchoring equipment remained attached at the third-highest point, near the fifth floor, where a broken piece of the mast had swung from the anchor through a window.
Construction remained frozen Tuesday, with some of the project’s workers diverted to other projects. Only a handful of people in vests roamed the site, many taking photographs near the missing window panes. Choate Construction has not announced when it will resume work on Charter Square, which it had hoped to complete by the end of April.
The Labor Department’s investigation will include interviews with workers, other witnesses and the manufacturer of the equipment; authorities have not disclosed the name of the manufacturer.
The inspectors will look at many possible explanations, Beauregard said.
“Overloading issues, eccentric loading issues, the load may not have been on center. We’ll take a look at wind – it was fairly windy the other day,” he said. The review, including structural engineers, also will address the bracing and anchoring of the system.
The investigation likely will show how many of the victims were aboard the platform. Several witnesses reported that they saw men falling. Images from the scene showed that at least one of the men was wearning a harness, but it is unclear what anchor he was tethered to.
North Carolina’s laws say that workers on some types of scaffolding, such as suspension platforms used by window washers, must have independent lifelines that attach them to the building itself.
But those lines are not required for mast lifters in North Carolina, Beauregard said. North Carolina’s occupational safety rules don’t specifically address the lifters, although they are regulated by the general scaffolding rules. Neither the state nor the city of Raleigh regularly inspect the structures, instead requiring that construction contractors bring on properly trained inspectors and engineers.
“I’m not aware of any municipality with specific requirements for scaffolding,” Beauregard said.
First North Carolina deaths
This was the first major incident involving a mast climber in North Carolina, according to Beauregard, but there have been a series of related fatalities since the devices became popular in the United States some 30 years ago.
The Center for Construction Research and Training counted at least 18 deaths between 1990 and 2010.
A 2006 disaster in Boston bears some similarities. In that case, a crew was removing anchors and tearing down a mast climber when it fell to the street, the Boston Herald reported. Inspectors found that workers had removed a crucial brace just before the fall; two workers and a passer-by were killed, the newspaper reported.
Government citations indicated that a masonry firm had failed to note missing bolts and improperly installed braces on an overloaded system, the Herald reported.
The authorities in North Carolina have made no implication of wrongdoing in Monday’s disaster.
“We at Associated Scaffolding are in mourning, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the four men involved in this incident,” read a statement attributed to Tommy Hawkins, chief executive of Associated Scaffolding.
“We are working with OSHA as they determine the cause of this tragic event.”
Associated Scaffolding erects and dismantles scaffolding across the Southeast, including mast climbers. The company also offers scaffolding-related training.
Juba Aluminum Products performs several construction services, including the installation of glass “curtain walls,” which wrap the exterior of many downtown buildings, according to its website.
“Our prayers and thoughts are with our employees and their families and everyone affected by this incident,” the company said in a written release. The men were part of its Jannawall team, according to the release; a separate corporation under the Jannawall name shares an address with Juba.
KEA Services describes itself as a subcontractor for several large general contractors, including Choate Construction.