Calls for justice underscore vigil held to honor Charlotte scaffolding collapse victims

Jeff Siner

Family, friends and local labor union representatives gathered on a cold night Friday at Marshall Park in Charlotte for a vigil marking one month since the death of three construction workers in a scaffolding collapse.

As the sun set over the park’s fountain, a group of about 40 people lit candles, prayed for and shared memories of those killed, and called for justice in the wake of the incident.

“We do gather to honor these gentlemen because we don’t want to remember them just as another victim ... It’s become all too familiar to us, unfortunately,” Isael Mejia, a local organizer with the union Ironworkers International, told the crowd. “Citywide and in the labor movement, it’s not the first time that we’ve had to come together to honor workers who’ve died just trying to go to work and make ends meet.”

The three men — Jose Canaca, Gilberto Monico Fernández and Jesus “Chuy” Olivares — died on Jan. 2 when they fell about 70 feet while working at a construction site on Morehead Street, near uptown Charlotte and Dilworth.

Two other workers were injured. Charlotte-Metrolina Labor Council President Ashley Hawkins said at the vigil that another worker from the site “died of a broken heart” two weeks after the collapse.

“We are sad, and that is why we are gathered. And the sadness is natural. It is unavoidable,” Hawkins said. “But I’m angry as well.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police previously confirmed the collapse happened at 711 E. Morehead St., where a residential building was under construction. In October 2020, the Texas-based Hanover Company won Charlotte City Council approval to rezone the property to a mixed-use site. The project called for up to 350 apartments with a maximum building height of 170 feet, according to city documents.

The victims worked for Friends Masonry Construction LLC, according to state Department of Labor spokeswoman Erin Wilson.

Construction deaths part of ‘alarming trend’

The incident shut down work at the site, and the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Division is still investigating what happened. Investigations into falls from scaffolding “can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months, depending on the complexity of the accident,” the Labor Department has said.

At least 16 people have died in scaffolding accidents in North Carolina in the last decade, a Charlotte Observer analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration records found. And Latino construction workers have experienced the highest rate of occupational death of any racial and ethnic group in North Carolina in recent years, research shows.

At a dangerous time for North Carolina workers, workplace safety inspections plunged

Hawkins called high death rates among Latino workers “part of an alarming trend.”

“The root of the problem is greed,” she said. “Employers use workers. They ring what they can from our bodies and they profit from our toil. And when we are all done and used up, we are cast off. And in construction, the abuse is rampant. There is little regard for safety. The production schedule is brutal. Construction is everywhere, and they want the buildings faster, faster and faster and they want them cheaper, cheaper and cheaper.”

Hawkins added that “Latino workers receive less safety and skills training than other workers” and highlighted the low number of safety inspectors in North Carolina, especially ones who speak Spanish.

At Friday’s vigil, a link to a petition calling for Hanover to install “a permanent memorial” to the victims at the site of the collapse also circulated, with the families’ ongoing grief a focal point.

An uncle of Canaca, Jorge Bonilla, recalled having a feeling that something had happened when another relative tried to call him multiple times on the morning of Jan. 2.

“He said, ‘There was an accident at the construction site where Josecito was working,’” Bonilla said his brother told him when he answered his call. “I said, ‘Is Josecito OK?’ He got that moment of silence, and at that time I got that feeling that something was not right. And he said, ‘Our nephew is gone.’”

As the investigation continues, the family is eager for answers about what happened on the day of his nephew’s death, Bonilla added.

Workers were people who ‘made the city grow’

Rev. Charles DiRico, of The Word on the Street Ministry, led the vigil crowd in a bilingual recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

“The reason I like to share the Lord’s Prayer in times like these is because of what it teaches us about the kingdom of Heaven. And what it teaches us about the kingdom is God’s will is already done here on Earth as it is Heaven,” he said. “And now, let us all pause and reflect on how these men have done God’s will and lived and loved in such a way that God’s kingdom was indeed revealed here on the earth.”

As the event drew to a close, Mejia called on those in attendance to keep speaking out about what happened to those who died, learn about workplace rights and fight for improvements in working conditions.

“We know one day those cranes will be gone. They will no longer be in the sky. Those houses, those homes, will be filled with people who will never have heard their names, but at least hopefully will have heard their story,” he said. “... The growth that we seem to be experiencing wouldn’t be possible without the people going out there every day to work. The focus shouldn’t be on how companies can be successful. We want companies to be successful. We need places to go work. But the focus should always be the people who really made this to make the city grow.”