Workplace-safety officials probing scaffold collapse

Jonathan Drew and Michael Biesecker
Associated Press

Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's workplace safety agency is leading an investigation into why a scaffold with several men on it broke free from the facade of a high-rise construction project and killed three workers.

The State Department of Labor is receiving help from Raleigh's police and fire departments as it interviews dozens of workers at the Charter Square building under construction in downtown Raleigh.

The equipment known as a mast climber scaffold moves up and down a building's facade to take workers to different floors. One of the tracks had snapped off several stories up Monday 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 dead men as Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41, of Durham; Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33, of Clinton; and Anderson Almeida, 33, of Durham.

A fourth man, Elmer Guevara, 53, was taken to WakeMed hospital, authorities said. The hospital said he was in fair condition.

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.

"We are finished using it. They actually were dismantling that piece when it happened," Hampton said. "It wasn't as if it was business as usual; they went to work and it collapsed."

Choate issued a statement saying the company is "deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries."

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.

Thuston said he had walked inside minutes before the accident.

"That could have been anybody. That could have been me," he said.

State Department of Labor spokesman Neal O'Briant said his agency is investigating the cause.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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.

People who answered multiple calls at the company's Durham headquarters declined to comment.

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.