NEW ORLEANS — Belter Bermudez heard a crashing sound as he worked to trim support pieces for the 17th and 18th floors – the top two floors – of the future Hard Rock Hotel.
An ironworker for subcontractor Hub Steel, Bermudez figured his coworkers were removing some of the temporary supports holding the floors in place while the concrete cured.
“I was thinking it was something normal, but then seconds later I hear boom, boom and that’s when the building started collapsing,” said the Guatemala native who has lived in New Orleans for 17 years.
Meanwhile, nine floors below, Adan Hernandez Jr. saw the collapse from the other perspective – from below.
He had come to the job three months ago from Florida to work for his father, Adan Hernandez Sr., Hub Steel’s ironwork foreman. The younger Hernandez had worked his way up from laborer to lay the metal decking for the upper floors, but once the concrete was poured, that decking work had finished, so he was assigned to fire watch on the eighth floor.
He had just taken a bathroom break near the buck hoist, the temporary elevator that would soon topple across North Rampart Street. If he had taken a longer break, he might have fallen with it, he said.
“It sounded like a beam fell or like they had big old tubing and it dropped,” Hernandez said. “But it made no sense because there was nothing supposed to be in the air. (The noise) started getting louder and louder and I finally looked up after two or three seconds and I see rocks and debris coming down on me. And I turned around and noticed it was the building crumbling.”
Both men said they ran away from Rampart Street when they realized what was happening. After the pancaking stopped is when the real chaos began.
“I started praying, started crying, and after that I started blacking out, punching the wall,” Hernandez. “Some of my friends found me, shook me, took me back to reality and I kept going in shock through there.”
Bermudez said he’s sorry to admit that he pushed some of his co-workers as 50 of them tried to escape from the 17th floor. Temporary stairs in the back, where the top floors are still intact, had been removed, he said. The only way down was to jump where the floors had collapsed.
Finally out on the street, first responders ushered Bermudez and other survivors behind yellow police tape. But Bermudez argued to get back in.
“When I turned my head I saw my coworker’s helmet and he was waving like ‘help me.’ And I say, ‘Enrique is over there’ on the eighth floor,” he said. “Because my friend don’t speak English and I need to translate for him to be treated immediately. And they took him to the hospital, thank God.”
Enrique had taken a video of another worker named Albert, trapped under a fallen steel beam. Bermudez said he told firefighters he knew how to get there and led them back into the building.
“We wasn’t able to help Albert because all the metal and debris don’t let us go and get Mr. Albert,” Bermudez said. “Albert, he get out by himself.”
But along the way, Bermudez said they found another coworker, Derrick Pate, with a broken leg. They called Pate “Goodie.”
“We found Goodie trapped, and we rescued him,” he said.
Hernandez said he isn’t particularly close with his father, but the emotions flowed when he saw him, injured but safe.
“When I seen him I was just happy because I thought all my people were dead,” he said.
Bermudez said he’s still in shock and is haunted by recurring images of the collapse.
“When I close my eyes, the picture of all of this is still on my mind. It’s been tough,” he said. He’s been talking to a counselor and said it’s helped. But he gets especially emotional thinking about his wife, two sons and the daughter they’re expecting in December.
“I was thinking, I wasn’t able to see my kids again. It break me but… yeah, that was my first thought: ‘Oh, my family,’” he said, tears coming to his eyes. “I made it. I’m so thankful.”
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