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Aging Bolts to Blame in Fatal Harlem Building Collapse, Contractor Says

By DNAinfo Staff on March 23, 2012 7:00pm

Investigators examine a sheared bolt at the site of the Columbia University Building collapse, March 23, 2012.
Investigators examine a sheared bolt at the site of the Columbia University Building collapse, March 23, 2012.
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Theodore Parisienne

By Leslie Albrecht and Sonja Sharp

HARLEM —Worn bolts that couldn't support a heavy horizontal beam caused the fatal building collapse at Columbia University's future Manhattanville campus Thursday, according to the demolition company performing the work.

Their findings confirmed the fears of the 69-year-old worker killed in the tragic accident.

Juan Ruiz had told family members he worried about the safety of demolishing the 1915-era warehouse at 604-606 W. 131st St. because the building was so old. His instincts were apparently correct.

In an investigation following Thursday's accident, which killed Ruiz and seriously injured two others, structural engineers with Brooklyn-based Breeze National Company found that the building crumbled unexpectedly because a horizontal beam was secured with worn bolts, the company said in a statement released Friday.

The aging bolts were hidden inside two feet of concrete and weren't visible in building drawings, so demolition workers were unaware of the dangerous condition when they went to work tearing down the building, according to Breeze's statement.

"(T)his accident was the result of an unknown, unusual, latent condition in one of the structural beams," the statement said.

Breeze based its findings on what the company's own engineers found, said spokeswoman Sarah Berman.

The Department of Buildings, which was also investigating the accident, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Breeze defended itself Friday against reports that the DOB had issued a stop work order at the site in early March. The company said the order, which was rescinded days later, wasn't related to the problems with the beam that caused the accident.

Breeze added that despite media reports that reputed mobster Toby Romano was linked to Breeze, Romano hasn't been involved with the company since 2009. His son, Toby Romano, Jr. now runs the company, Berman said.

A spokesman for General Building Laborers' Local 79, the union representing the workers involved the accident, called Breeze "one of the best demolition companies in the business."

"They know what they're doing, they do it well, and they do it safely," said Local 79 spokesman Richard Weiss.

Demolition work is extremely hazardous, said Weiss, especially in New York City. In other cities it's common to implode buildings, but that's not feasible in New York because buildings are so close together, he said. Instead, demolition work requires painstaking, floor-by-floor dismantling.

"It's a very very hard job, and a very very dangerous job," Weiss said.

Ruiz, King Range, 60, and Sakim Kirby, 30, all from The Bronx, had to be pulled from the wreckage by hand. They were rushed to St. Luke's Hospital where Ruiz died.  Range suffered life-threatening injuries and Kirby was seriously hurt, fire officials said.

Outside the hospital on Friday, Sakim's father, Curtis Kirby, said his son's condition was stable and that he was in and out of consciousness. Sakim Kirby was in a lot of pain, so doctors were keeping him heavily sedated, his father told DNAinfo.

"I want to know what the hell happened out there, and I want to know who's at fault," Kirby said. "Right now, it's about his well-being."

Leis Colon, the 29-year-old grandson of Juan Ruiz, said his family was considering filing a lawsuit, but hadn't time to move forward with it because they were "overwhelmed."