NEW ORLEANS — Exactly two years after the Hard Rock Hotel collapsed and killed three construction workers, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams says he’s convening a grand jury to consider felony charges against anyone whose negligence might have caused the disaster.
“Every single thing is on the table and we're going to present all of it to a grand jury and let them make the call,” Williams said. He noted that the inquiry is far more complex and intricate than most matters considered by state grand juries, but said his prosecutors are prepared to deal with that.
“We're going to bring in national experts to help this grand jury understand some of the more technical things,” he said. “As you report, you start talking about beams and how they fit. That can get really technical. How many feet they're apart, how many of them there are, how long concrete is supposed to cure. And so, we're going to make sure this grand jury has all the information it needs to go forward.”
Williams issued subpoenas on Sept. 20 for investigative files from the New Orleans Office of Inspector General and from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He confirmed Tuesday that he has received “voluminous records” from nine different IG office hard drives, including recordings and photographs and construction records gathered by the inspector general’s former lead investigator, Kristen Morales, who was fired in January.
Williams also said he was confident that OSHA, which had been unwilling to release its files while the project engineer and steel contractor were challenging safety violations, would comply with the subpoena “in short order.” The agency did not, however, provide the files by the Oct. 8 deadline listed on the subpoena.
“People were killed in the city of New Orleans, many more were hurt,” he said. “This happened on a Saturday morning. Had it been any regular day of the week, there would have been more workers inside and there would have been more citizens driving that intersection. So, we have to push and press this case in terms of looking for criminal culpability.”
Sources have already disclosed to WWL-TV some of what OSHA's engineer found: that the collapse was “waiting to happen” because dozens of beams under the 16th floor and supporting the top three floors of heavy concrete and piles of equipment were "grossly undersized," as were connections between beams and columns.
The steel-framed structure was designed and approved by project engineer Heaslip Engineering. OSHA’s initial violations last year said the beams were “under-designed.” The company’s owner, James Heaslip, denies the allegations.
“We have denied and are contesting all allegations of fault and negligence asserted in the legal proceedings related to the Hard Rock Hotel collapse, and we stand behind our company’s track record of designing projects that meet applicable engineering standards,” Heaslip reiterated in a statement Tuesday.
Williams says the grand jury will decide who is liable. He noted the deadline for filing any misdemeanor charges is two years, but says the four-year deadline for felony charges is the only one he’s concerned with.
“I think everybody would wholeheartedly agree, there's no misdemeanor that fits into what happened there,” he said. “Any charges that come out of this investigation will most certainly be felonies. And the grand jury -- the people of this city, who had to live with the black eye of that monstrosity staring down at us -- those citizens will be part of the grand jury going out to make this decision.”
A recent investigative report by the Inspector General’s Office found three city building inspectors failed to show up at the Hard Rock in person to look at subfloors before approving the pouring of concrete on the upper levels.
The inspector general recommended criminal charges against former city building inspectors Julie Tweeter, Eric Treadaway and Thomas Dwyer for filing false public records and malfeasance in office, and Williams said that door is open.
“We are absolutely looking for any criminal culpability as it relates to Hard Rock, whether it be causal to the collapse and loss of life and injury, or whether it be folks getting paid for work they simply did not do or conspiring to receive benefit or gain by not looking as closely as they should have looked,” Williams said.
Williams said he is meeting this week with Irene Wimberly, mother of worker Quinnyon Wimberly, who was killed in the collapse. The other men killed in the collapse were Anthony Magrette and Jose Ponce Arreola, a Mexican national.
Williams also called it “troubling” that the federal government quickly deported Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, a Honduran national injured in the collapse.
Ramirez recorded a video two days before the collapse showing bent metal shoring posts on the 16th floor. He can be heard on the video speaking in Spanish, criticizing the engineers who designed the beams and the spaces between them.
Williams said he considers Ramirez a key witness because he questioned the design before the collapse and said he will do everything in his power to get Ramirez back to testify.
“I would say to all the families, the families of people who lost loved ones and the families who had people hurt and the families who had their loved one deported because he spoke out: This investigation should have started a long time ago before my administration even started,” said Williams, a former city councilman who took over as DA from Leon Cannizzaro in January. “This information should have been here. The grand jury should have already been convened, regardless of where the evidence takes us.”