A few dozen men filed just before noon from the gates of a construction site on the south end of downtown, walking blocks through the rain to the brick chapel at Shaw University.
They left their jobs for 30 minutes on Friday to mourn the friends and colleagues they had lost on Monday. The moment of reflection came as construction resumed on the Charter Square tower, where the collapse of a scaffolding platform killed three men and injured one this week.
“They were working too hard, died too young,” said Larry Kearney, 32, who is working on the building’s plumbing.
The prayer service was a chance, too, for Shaw University’s students to try to make sense of the disaster. The school stands only a block from the dark glass tower, and several students saw the elevator-like system rip from the building’s side with workers aboard.
John Coleman, 20, was parking his car in the lot just south of the building when it happened.
“I started screaming in my car,” he said after the service. “It was falling – I saw tools falling.”
And then he saw three men falling.
He read a poem for them on Friday, facing three empty chairs placed at the front of their chapel in their memory.
“Were you there? Did you know the three workmen? Like Nehemiah, they were toiling from sunup to sundown to build, build, build,” read the poem, written for the occasion by George Debnam, a retired physician.
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.
The disaster was a shock even for workers who have spent decades in construction, they said. The last remnants of the destroyed “mast climber” are gone from the building’s face, but a state investigation into its failure could continue for six months.
At Shaw, Bill Thurston has made the collapse a topic of discussion for his class on cross-cultural ethics and responsibility.
Some of his students had blamed the contractor, Choate Construction, and its subcontractors. Others thought that the government had failed the men.
“It’s all of our responsibility,” he said. “They did represent the disenfranchised. We need to work to ensure their safety.”
Almeida’s funeral likely will be the first. Services were scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday in the chapel of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service at 1113 W. Main St. in Durham.