Three construction workers were killed and another seriously injured late Monday morning when an exterior lift system tore from the side of an office building under construction in downtown Raleigh.
A witness, LeRoy Kelley, said workers were dismantling a “mast climber” on the 11-story Charter Square building on Fayetteville Street when the elevator-like system collapsed, sending a mobile scaffolding platform to the ground.
Kelley, of Raleigh, was working with concrete under the scaffolding when he heard a popping sound and someone shouting “Run!” As he ran beneath the building, he heard an enormous crash.
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Kelley said one worker was in a portable toilet that was crushed by the falling platform. Kelley had just exited the restroom, holding the door open for the next man just moments before the collapse, he said.
Authorities identified the dead workers as Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, of Durham; Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton; and Anderson Almeida, 33, of Durham. The injured worker, who was taken to WakeMed, was Elmer Guevara, 53. Authorities said they were not sure where Guevara lives.
A person who called 911 indicated that some of the injured workers were aboard the platform when it fell, according to a recording of the call.
Raleigh-based Dominion Realty Partners is developing the 243,000-square-foot building. Choate Construction is the general contractor.
Mike Hampton, Choate’s chief operating officer, said a subcontractor, Associated Scaffolding, was in the process of dismantling the mast climbers, which transport crews and materials to different positions on a building’s facade.
“Today was the day they were supposed to start dismantling them,” Hampton said from Atlanta. “That process had begun. We don’t know what happened, but it occurred in the process of dismantling the climbers.”
“That’s what they do,” Hampton said of Associated Scaffolding, which has offices in Durham and Raleigh. “It wasn’t a glass company that was doing scaffolding. … They’re a very large company, very well-versed, with a good track record.”
A spokesman for the N.C. Department of Labor later said that two victims of the accident were employed by Janna Wall Inc., a Concord-based company that specializes in “curtain” walls, the thin glass or metal walls on a building’s exterior. A representative for Janna Wall wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Officials with the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Division took control of the Charter Square site, halting construction, Hampton said.
‘It all came down at once’
The accident happened shortly before 11 a.m. A support structure of the scaffolding system failed near the fifth floor and fell into the performing arts center parking lot across Lenoir Street. A piece of the frame pierced the glass wall, hanging there for hours afterward.
Police quickly roped off the blocks around Charter Square, which is being built across from the Marriott City Center hotel. Dozens of construction workers were evacuated from the building site, still wearing their gear.
The workers gathered a block south, on the lawn of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and crammed into a nearby McDonald’s. Dozens of people stopped to stare up at the punctured building or to peer at photographs the construction workers had taken with their phones, some of them graphic.
Kelley, who said he narrowly escaped the collapse, drank a cup of coffee to calm his nerves.
“We was right under it,” he said. “On a construction site, you don’t ask questions. You run.”
John Smith, a contract safety inspector from Raleigh, said he was near a window on the sixth floor during the collapse. He heard shouts, looked out the window, and saw scaffolding fall away from the building.
“It all just came down at once,” Smith said. He said he hadn’t seen any safety problems at the site before then.
Construction companies in the United States have used mast climbers since the early 1980s, said Kevin O’Shea, chair of the Mast Climbing Council of the Scaffold and Access Industry Association. The devices typically are used for work on external walls; crews might use them as platforms from which to install windows, he said.
“It makes your blood run cold to see something like this. It really does,” O’Shea said.
Mast climbers are “as safe as other forms of scaffolding,” according to The Center for Construction Research and Training. But because they can carry multiple workers and “extremely large loads,” and their design is less “forgiving” of errors, accidents involving them can be catastrophic, the center wrote in a 2010 report.
Three men were killed in 2009 when they fell from a mast climber in Austin, Texas, according to the center. In 2006, three workers were killed as the climber they were dismantling in Boston collapsed. Three workers also were killed in Miami in 1995 because of an overloaded and misconfigured platform, the center reported.
In all, the center counted 18 fatalities in mast-climber incidents between 1990 and 2010.
The collapsed system in Raleigh appeared to run a wide platform up and down a central, ladder-like structure that is bolted to the building at intervals. State law requires that a qualified inspector examine the system daily, according to the N.C. Department of Labor, but neither the city nor state government inspects mast climbers or similar scaffolding systems.
“Typically the inspections would be done by equipment owners who have training from the manufacturers of the equipment,” O’Shea said. “Each manufacturer will offer a robust, generally and typically, a robust training for the erectors and dismantlers of the equipment.”
The state Occupational Safety and Health Division’s investigation of the incident could take three to six months to complete, said Labor Department spokesman Neal O’Briant. Investigators will assess records and interview witnesses as they try to figure out what happened, O’Briant said.
The investigators will try to determine whether the contractors observed the weight-load limits of the system, whether a qualified person designed the system and whether a competent person inspected it.
Choate Construction works on job sites across the Southeast. The company has been Dominion Realty Partners’ lead contractor for more than a decade, said Andy Andrews, chief executive for Dominion.
“They’re a great company – been in business a long time,” Andrews said.
“There’s a lot of information still being gathered,” he said. “Obviously our thoughts and prayers go out to the families … it’s a terrible, terrible accident.”
Federal records indicate that Choate Construction has been cited for safety violations seven times in the past 10 years. A worker, who was not employed by Choate, died in one incident, the collapse of a garage during construction in Tennessee. Choate was later cleared by an arbitration judge, the Jacksonville Business Journal reported.
Federal records listed six violations in 10 years for Associated Scaffolding, none involving apparent fatalities. No violations were listed for Janna Wall.
The state Labor Department’s annual reports on worker deaths list one fall from scaffolding in the past two years, out of 67 deaths. Nationally, falls from scaffolding or staging accounted for 45 out of 4,690 worker deaths in 2010.
Researcher David Raynor and staff writer Ron Gallagher contributed.
Construction of the $63 million Charter Square office building at the south end of Fayetteville Street began in March 2014 and was scheduled to be completed by April 28.
The 11-story, 243,000-square-foot building is the first of two towers planned for the site. The project dates back to before the recession.
Raleigh-based Dominion Realty Partners took over Charter Square when a previous development group was unable to secure financing after the financial crisis. Dominion paid $6.3 million for the land under a deal it struck with the city of Raleigh.
The law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice is the largest tenant to commit to the Charter Square building. The firm will take between 43,000 and 45,000 square feet. HDR Engineers, CBRE, JDavis, Eschelon Hospitality and Dominion Realty Partners have also announced plans to lease space in the building.
Dominion also has an option to buy the north side of the Charter Square site where the second office tower is planned.