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Echoes of the New Orleans Hard Rock Hotel Collapse

The dust has hardly cleared after the recent partial collapse of eight floors of the under-construction Hard Rock Hotel at 1031 Canal Street at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, killing three and injuring over 30 workers, but the lawsuits and the stories are beginning to emerge.

The Mayor has declared that the structure will be totally demolished in early 2020, probably after Mardi Gras, even though two bodies of the workers killed in the incident have not been recovered from the rubble.

An attempt to demolish two cranes was only partially successful when the boom of one penetrated the street and sewer, and the other was only partially demolished according to plan and had to be secured to the still-standing frame of the building to ensure that surrounding businesses were not in any further danger from either a possible falling crane or from rubble spalling off of the site.

OSHA and forensics teams are still probing the causes of the collapse, but some stories of possible causes have emerged from the workers who escaped from the rubble and who are willing to talk. One of those stories sounds like it came out of a novel.

The story reported by The Guardian, Fox News, The Washington Post, and other sources is one recounted by Rameriz Palma, one of the workers who escaped, injured but alive. Palma is now in a private holding facility for illegal immigrants who are awaiting imminent deportation. How he got to this point is a story in itself.

First of all, Palma and his family have been in the US for 18 years. They came from Honduras and found their way to New Orleans where Palma has worked at various construction jobs. He was working, according to one report, for Rey Co., a company that was registered in 2008 and claims that it has one employee, likely not Palma. That is usually a sign around construction sites that the workers are not employees, have no benefits or hospitalization. It can be a signal that the workers are 1099 or cash workers.

Palma had been issued a deportation order in 2016 but appealed that order with a stay in 2018 that is still in the courts. Palma had supposedly been reporting to the court to keep it in place so that he and his family can stay in the US.

Palma has worked construction and reported that he had uncovered some bad workmanship on the project to his supervisors. “According to his lawyers and his wife, Ramírez Palma had reported safety concerns – including asymmetrical building measurements and uncured concrete too weak to support weight – to his supervisors at King Company, a New Orleans construction firm, before the deadly collapse.”

“Construction managers allegedly told him to ignore the issues, according to Mary Yanik, senior staff attorney at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an advocacy group.”

When the building collapsed, Palma and over 30 others were injured. The doctors told Palma to take off for a few weeks to recover. One morning, two days after his release from the hospital he went fishing. Fish and Wildlife approached him to check his license which was valid, but his driver’s license was not valid. ICE agents showed up and took him into custody. Some think that he was targeted as an illegal so that he would stay out of the way. Supposedly he had pictures on his cellphone of irregularities he noted in the build, but ICE took his phone when they arrested him.

Palma’s arrest looks suspicious to some and as we have noted in other posts as typical in many construction companies, has driven the other illegal workers who were on the build to become very guarded about talking to the media or even cooperating with the OSHA team investigating the collapse for fear of getting deported themselves.

Additionally, according to an article in Lafayette Daily Advertiser, “A month ago, the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union passed out orange flyers protesting the construction site and its alleged use of unlicensed electricians.” 

The reports and the lawsuits are one thing, but once again, it points to the need for owners and contractors to hire only those qualified to do the work and to hire them as employees with benefits. This story points out again that Congress and the Trump Administration need to address the current law to avoid this type of situation from occurring again on another build.

Meanwhile, Rameriz Palma may or may not be headed back to Honduras, and the investigation of the collapse continues.