Death toll up to 3 in Miami parking garage collapse

The Miami HeraldOctober 11, 2012 

A third man died Thursday morning, a day after a parking garage collapsed on the Doral campus of Miami Dade College. Samuel Perez was pulled from the rubble around 1 Thursday morning by rescuers had to amputate his legs to get him out. Perez, 53, died about three hours later in the hospital, according to Miami-Dade police.

Unlike Wednesday’s frantic efforts, the rescue effort gave way to recovery mode on Thursday. Authorities are waiting for engineers to determine the structural safety of the building before workers dig into the rubble looking for victims.

The death toll now stands at three and could go higher as the search continues and at least one worker remains missing.

Police on Thursday identified the other men who died: Carlos Hurtado Demendoza, 48, and Jose Calderon, 60.

The head of the garage contractor said his company is committed to working with local, state and federal authorities to determine what caused the collapse.

“At this time, we are properly focused on the tragic loss of life ... and helping the families involved,” said Bill Byrne, president of Ajax Building Corp.

The section of the garage that fell was the final piece, with a wall to be used by the college as a movie screen or a theatrical backdrop.

Byrne, who appeared distaught at moments at the site Thursday, said that the catastrophe was the worst in his career. He said there was “no warning whatsoever” and that while projects like this one are “fast-paced” on a deadline, he said the work was not rushed.

Wednesday was a day of drama and fear, with a portion of the under-construction garage collapsing flat around noon.

Hearing a rumble, a worried Rick Rutigliano, an electrical supervisor, ran to the other side of the parking garage to check it out.

By the time he reached the site, a major chunk of the $22.5 million, five-story building, under construction on the college’s West Campus in Doral, already had collapsed.

Students ran screaming. Construction workers, yelling “Oh, my God!” scrambled for safety.

“It fell to the ground like a house of cards,” said Victoria Buczynski, who was working Wednesday at Gurkha Cigars across the street from the construction site.

Miami-Dade police confirmed three workers died in the sudden collapse, while one man was trapped for about 12 hours inside the cab of a truck among the rubble.

Shortly after midnight, rescue workers decided to amputate the trapped worker’s legs above the knee to pull him from the rubble. At around 1:15 a.m. he was rushed to the hospital.

Meanwhile, rescue dogs detected some blood, possibly of the missing man, but the area was difficult for rescue workers to reach.

Lt. Arnold Piedrahita Jr., spokesman for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, had promised earlier in the day to focus efforts on getting the trapped man out.

“We’re not going to leave here until this gentleman gets out,” he said.

Scores of firefighters were still at the scene when the man’s legs were amputated.

As many as 10 victims went to area hospitals with injuries.

Electricians, welders, painters and other construction workers were inside the garage at the time of the collapse. The victims were construction workers for the garage contractor, Ajax Building Corp., or one of its subcontractors, college spokesman Juan Mendieta said.

Rutigliano said the structure appeared to have started to collapse as a large crane tried to set down an expansion beam on top of an existing one.

“Those guys had only seconds to get out, once the collapse began,” Rutigliano said.

Hundreds of rescuers rushed to what remained of the garage, first shoring up portions of the site before launching a full-scale search.

Cries for help

Almost immediately, they heard cries from under the debris and began the precarious and frantic job of unearthing trapped workers.

One worker’s legs were pinned under a large piece of concrete, and rescuers had to prepare him for the possibility of cutting off both legs to free him, Piedrahita said.

“Anytime you have to consider amputation, it’s very risky and harrowing,’’ Piedrahita said. “Imagine having to explain to them we have to amputate your extremities or you will die.’’

A surgical kit was readied. But a last-ditch effort to hoist him out was successful, Piedrahita said.

The campus was evacuated, roads — including Florida’s Turnpike exit — were shut down, heavy equipment was brought in to shore up the structure, and nearly 100 rescue units with about 300 rescue workers assembled quickly in an open space near the campus at 3800 NW 115th Ave., just east of the turnpike. Later, search and rescue dogs were brought in to help.

As the rescue effort continued into the night, bright lights and portable bathrooms were rolled in.

Among the missing was Robert Budhoo, one of about 17 workers at the garage when it collapsed.

His brother, Donovan, said Robert Budhoo is an electrician with Stryker Electric, a contractor on the job.

“We know he was at work today,” Donovan Budhoo said. “I’ve been calling him all day and his cellphone doesn’t answer.”

Budhoo lives in Tamarac with his wife and three children. Family members drove down to Doral late Wednesday to the site, watching the rescue efforts and waiting for news.

Rutigliano, Budhoo’s supervisor, also waited to learn the fate of his worker, who was the only electrical worker missing, he said.

Another victim, a man in his 30s, remained trapped inside the cab of a truck, buried beneath concrete.

“We’re still talking to him, monitoring him, trying to get him out,’’ said Dr. Marc Grossman, assistant medical director for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Ajax President William P. Byrne expressed the company’s “deepest sympathies and prayers” to the family of the colleague who died and to those who were injured.

The cause of the collapse was not known Wednesday. Byrne said they would work with authorities and their partner companies to find out what went wrong.

The garage, scheduled to open in December, was to alleviate parking for the fast-growing campus, which opened in 2007. The West Campus had been growing at an astounding 40 percent annually, and a warehouse was being used for parking.

The college has been working on renovating the campus to better accommodate student demand. The garage would have had the capacity to house at least 1,500 vehicles.

According to Ajax’s website, the parking garage project was designed with classroom and office space on the bottom floor, parking on the upper decks and a facade that could be used for movie or theatrical performances.

It also was going to be attached to a neighboring building, so people could move directly from the building to the garage with their cars.

Sandy Poreda, a spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said the college likely issued its own permit for the project.

The department, which handles licensing for contractors, had no record of any complaints against Ajax, the construction company, she said.

“Safety on the job site is the overarching priority of Ajax,” Byrne said in his statement. “Even as we work to determine the cause of this accident we are committed to embracing any additional protocols, policies and procedures that will enhance and ensure the continued priority of safety.’’

The company said on its website in an Oct. 1 update that the garage’s civil infrastructure had been installed along the courtyard and amphitheater.

A concrete subcontractor was working on ramps and stairs. The structural steel subcontractor was installing the roof steel assembly. Waterproofing had begun on the second floor.

On Wednesday, something went horribly wrong.

“It sounded like thunder. The whole place shook,’’ said Miami Dade College Professor William Duba, who was in a stairwell in another building, when he heard the garage crumble.

Wednesday’s collapse happened about a month after a parking garage in downtown Fort Lauderdale collapsed. That garage was in the process of being torn down, and two people suffered minor injuries.

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