Apr 16 2009
For the better part of one furious hour Tuesday afternoon, Houston Fire Department rescue workers tore, cut and picked their way through the rubble of an old southside motel undergoing renovation, hoping to reach the three workers trapped below before it was too late.
They rescued two in short order, but the third was dead by the time they got to him, crushed by hundreds of pounds of lumber and concrete.
“I’d say it was mostly a success,” said Capt. Richard Cole, head of the HFD rescue team. “We did the best we could.”
Police and rescue personnel arrived at the old HouTex Inn in the 6300 block of the Gulf Freeway around 4:15 to find workers standing beside a collapsed building. Using dogs, special cameras and “most of the toys in the toolbox,” Cole said, rescuers cut through the old roof, drilled an inspection hole and located the space where two of the workers had managed to avoid serious injury. The third victim was found about 20 feet away.
Cole said the construction workers were replacing joists on the first floor when the top floor began to shift sideways. Within seconds the roof and supporting structures started to lean, ultimately toppling and collapsing the building, he said. Rescuers had to work their way down, cutting through the roof, supporting trusses, beams and a lightweight concrete floor before reaching the area where the workers were trapped.
The building contained no structural steel. Cole said there was little bracing to stop the lateral movement of the second floor when it began to lean.
Police have identified the dead man as Ramiro Sigala, 24, of Houston. The names of the injured had not been released by this afternoon. The two survivors were taken to local hospitals with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening.
A representative from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration was at the site after the collapse but declined to comment. The federal agency regulates workplace safety.
Houston homicide Sgt. Robert Torres also inspected the scene and said there was no reason to believe the worker’s death was anything other than an industrial accident.
One of the construction supervisors on the site, John Braxton, said four men were working on the building that collapsed. One jumped to safety before it fell. Braxton said all the men were good employees and hard workers.
“You try to be safe, you try to do what’s right, but in a split second somebody is gone,” Braxton said.
With assistance from the city of Houston, the erstwhile motel is being renovated to low-income housing. Before it closed, the HouTex Inn was an establishment that city officials referred to as one of the worst “hot sheet” motels, a haven for drug-dealing and prostitution.
New Hope Housing, the city’s partner on the 149-room apartment complex, bought the inn and hired Camden Builders to rehab it beginning in January. When finished, the small, single-room apartments will be rented to the newly homeless, said Richard Celli, the city’s director of housing and community development.
The project has received about $8 million in low-income-housing tax credits through a state program that allows builders to take an old building “down to the studs” and renovate it into usable housing. The credits are sold to companies and the proceeds from those sales, as well as money raised from philanthropy, are used to rehab the complex, Celli said.
The grants were awarded in a competitive application process, he said.