Local News

Investigation into scaffolding accident could take months

Posted March 24, 2015

— North Carolina's workplace safety agency said Tuesday that it might 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 in downtown Raleigh and killed three workers.

The State Department of Labor is receiving help from the city's police and fire departments as it interviews dozens of workers at the 11-story Charter Square building under construction on Fayetteville Street.

Agency spokesman Neal O'Briant said Tuesday that the investigation 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 and that all four were involved in the construction project.

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

Elmer Guevara, 53, was taken to WakeMed, where he was listed in fair condition Tuesday morning.

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.

A team of about a dozen investigators from the labor department conducted interviews Tuesday, took photos of the site and inspected equipment. A structural engineer from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also on hand to assist.

"We want to find out exactly what was occurring at the time of the incident, what processes they were using, whether or not they were disassembling it, but we haven't verified that yet," said Kevin Beauregard, assistant deputy commission for the labor department's OSHA division. "We want to find out what happened, why it happened and prevent it from happening again."

Beauregard said there are different requirements for different types of scaffolding. Some require workers to be independently tethered to the building. That isn't the case for the mast climber.

Investigators will look also look at the scaffold to determine if the assembly, disassembly and use of the equipment were in accordance with requirements and manufacturer recommendations, Beauregard said.

"We don't know if it was human error that caused the incident or if it was structural. We don't know if it was overloading (or something else,)" he said. "We want to find out what happened, why it happened and prevent it from happening again.

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.

OSHA 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.

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.

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