Workers returned to the site of a fatal construction accident Wednesday as inspectors canvassed the area for a third day and families prepared to bury the three men killed.
The state Occupational Safety and Health Division has called in a structural engineer with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration as it tries to determine why an elevator-like scaffolding system known as a mast climber ripped from the side of the 11-story Charter Square building.
“A system is only as strong as its weakest point, so you can do 99.9 percent right and if you didn’t secure it correctly, that could be what caused the collapse,” said Kevin Beauregard, an assistant deputy commissioner for the state safety division, noting that there are several possible explanations.
“We don’t know where we are going with this yet, but we do know there’s been other collapses across the country with other mast climbers, so we have a good place to start of knowing where to look,” Beauregard said.
The Center for Construction Research and Training says mast climbers are “as safe as other forms of scaffolding,” but says because of their design and weight they are less forgiving of errors. In a 2010 report, the center cited 18 fatalities in mast-climber incidents between 1990 and 2010.
State officials say it may take several months to determine the cause of Monday’s disaster.
Killed in the collapse were Anderson Antones de Almeida, 33, of Durham; Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, of Durham and Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton. Elmer Guevara, 53, of Durham was hospitalized.
Some or all of the four men were dismantling the scaffolding at the time of the collapse. The system includes a tall, skinny central track anchored to the building and a platform that climbs the track, carrying workers and materials to different spots on the facade.
To break down the system, the men likely would have removed its anchors and broken its mast into pieces about 5 feet long, working from top to bottom and loading the parts onto the platform, according to Kevin O’Shea, an expert on the machines.
Mike Hampton, the chief operating officer for the general contractor, Choate Construction, said a subcontractor, Associated Scaffolding, was dismantling the mast climbers. At least one of the workers involved in the accident worked for the company, according to the Labor Department.
Federal OSHA records list two “serious” violations for Associated Scaffolding in the last decade. A 2008 citation referred to rules for storing oxygen cylinders, while a 2007 violation referred to rules about proper access to scaffolding platforms.
Two of the men who died worked for Juba Aluminum Products Co. of Concord, according to the Labor Department. It’s not clear what the company’s role was, but its specialties include installing exterior walls on large glass buildings.
This is not the first fatality of a worker involved with Juba Aluminum, according to federal records. A Juba worker was killed when he fell from a catwalk or outrigger on an 11-story building in Charlotte in 2001, according to federal OSHA records.
Juba was cited for two “serious” violations, including one involving a requirement that employers properly outfit their employees with personal protective equipment.
The company also has been cited for four “serious” violations on three dates over the last decade in North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama, the result of eight inspections. A 2009 violation related to “improper training” in “the correct procedures for erecting, disassembling, moving, operating, repairing, inspecting, and maintaining the type of scaffold in question.”
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
“We are deeply saddened by the sudden and tragic loss of two of our Jannawall team members,” the company said in a written statement. “While the details of the incident are under investigation, we are working closely with the contractor and local authorities to ensure the safety of all our employees.”
A cousin of one of the dead men said Juba was helping to cover funeral and travel expenses.
The third man killed worked for KEA Contracting Inc. of Raleigh, according to the Labor Department.
The injured man, Guevara, worked for Associated Scaffolding, according to the Labor Department. His condition was unclear Wednesday; WakeMed has declined to release information, citing his family’s request for privacy.
Almeida, 33, grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and lived in Durham. He is survived by a young son, a step-daughter and his longtime partner, Claudia Crispin, according to his obituary. He was one of four siblings, with a boisterous voice and an unwavering love of the Corinthians soccer club in Brazil, properly cooked steak, good company and the samba.
“He welcomed anyone and everyone into his life with a compassion and understanding only few can begin to appreciate,” his obituary said.
Almeida’s funeral will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday in the chapel of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service at 1113 West Main St. in Durham.
Olvia Lopez, the widow of Lopez-Ramirez, said that her lawyers had advised her against speaking to the media.
Hernandez’s wife, Glenda Argueta, is working with the Honduran consulate to return her husband’s body to his home country, ABC11 reported. His cousin, Marco Tulio Claros, came down from Long Island to help with funeral arrangements. He expected services would be held in Durham.
“He supported the family,” Claros said of Hernandez, who had 4-month-old and 8-year-old daughters. “He was waking up at 4 in the morning, 3:30 in the morning.”
Claros, who visited the building where his cousin died Wednesday afternoon, said he wants the public’s attention to stay on the incident.
“For me and my people, I need everyone to look at this,” he said, pointing toward the face of the building.
Staff writer Mandy Locke contributed.