Thursday, March 22, 2012

Construction Worker Killed at Columbia University Jobsite

A century-old warehouse that was being demolished to make way for Columbia University's expansion collapsed on Thursday, killing a construction worker and injured two others. Investigators found that workers cut a structural beam supporting what had been a two-story warehouse on West 131st Street. The section crumpled, burying the men in a cascade of steel beams, bricks and reinforced concrete.

The contractor, Breeze National Inc., was cited for two violations at the site on March 5 but had been cleared to resume work, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings said. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, said it is working with Breeze and the city to determine how the incident occurred.

Investigators were looking at the demolition plan and blueprints for the building to try to learn why the workers sliced into the crucial beam to determine what they knew and if they matched the site conditions. 

The warehouse, built in 1915, was being razed for Columbia University's expansion into a 17-acre site just north of the main campus in Morningside Heights. The extension will include classrooms, research facilities and administrative offices. The City Council approved the project in 2007.

The project has riled some neighborhood residents and local business owners, who have been especially critical of the decision to seize private property for the expansion. Coincidentally, a protest against the project had been scheduled for Thursday night.

The collapse left piles of debris where 604 West 131st Street once stood, and left part of the site unstable. Breeze workers had been tasked with clearing the debris to make it safe for investigators.

Firefighters who arrived on the scene after receiving a call at 7:51 a.m. found two workers partially covered by the wreckage and a third completely buried. It took 45 minutes to free the buried man, who had to be reached by tunneling.
Juan Ruiz, 69 years old, was one of the first men to be rescued but later died at St. Luke's Hospital. A native of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Ruiz came to New York 15 years ago and almost immediately began working in construction.

The two injured workers, King Range, 50, and Sakim Kirby, 30, were in serious condition at the hospital. All three had been conscious when they were taken from the site.

The city issued demolition permits for the site in February, and an anonymous complaint about unsafe conditions prompted a surprise inspection on March 5. Breeze received citations for failing to ensure workers wore protective harnesses and failing to notify the city that demolition work had begun. Work was stopped for two days until Breeze satisfied the buildings inspectors.