When he turned 18, Fernando Vanegaz immigrated from his home country of Ecuador to the United States. His parents had made the move years earlier for work, so when Fernando arrived there was a home in Queens waiting for him. He was eager for financial independence, and quickly found a job with a Brooklyn-based construction company.
The work was dangerous. Fernando would often frighten his mother with accounts of close calls on the job. One such incident occurred at a construction site at 656 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, when a retaining wall nearly toppled over.
A little under a month later, there was another incident with the retaining wall. This time, it collapsed entirely. Fernando was working underneath the wall at the time. He was killed less than a year into his new life in the US.
The owner of the construction company, Michael Weiss, was well aware that the retaining wall was a danger to his employees. He had received numerous safety complaints and requests for materials to shore up the wall in the weeks leading up to Fernando’s death, yet he did nothing.
Mr. Weiss had been hired by the building owner to convert a one-story structure into a five-story residential building, though he did not obtain the necessary permits to build on the lot, nor was he himself a licensed builder. Mr. Weiss was experienced with cutting corners.
Earlier this month, Mr. Weiss was charged by the Brooklyn Supreme Court with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, assault, grand larceny, tax fraud, and falsifying business records. He pleaded “not guilty” to all the charges and has been released on bail.
Tragic as this story is, it is not a new one.
As the New York construction boom continues, so too does the rising death toll among construction workers.
“We have seen the tragic results on construction sites too many times when contractors ignore repeated warnings of danger and put the lives of workers at risk,” said Mark Peters, the commissioner of the city’s Investigation Department. “In this case, the warnings were clear, but the defendant [Michael Weiss] disregarded them at a deadly cost.”
Gradually, the city is enacting measures that shine a light on the mistreatment of construction workers and protect their basic safety. The New York City Council recently passed a bill to keep a record of the deaths and injuries that occur at construction sites.
Through a combination of legislative changes and steep financial repercussions for negligent contractors, stories like Fernando’s will become less common. By holding Michael Weiss accountable in court, Fernando’s family can send a message to contractors and construction companies that taking basic safety precautions is imperative not only from a moral perspective, but from a financial one as well. They can send the message that cutting corners never pays.
Chaban, Matt A.V. “Fatal Construction Accidents are Rising in New York.” The New York Times 2 June 2015.
Feuer, Alan. “Construction Companies’ Owner is Charged in Laborer’s Death.” The New York Times 10 May 2017.
Mueller, Benjamin and Johsua Jamerson. “Worker Who Died in Wall Collapse Warned of Problems at Construction Site.” The New York Times 2 September 2015.
Whitford, Emma. “Construction Company Guilty of Manslaughter in Worker’s Death.” Gothamist 10 June 2016.