A nearly century-old warehouse that was being demolished to make way for Columbia University’s expansion into Harlem collapsed on Thursday, killing a construction worker and injuring two others, the city’s top buildings official said.
A preliminary city investigation found that workers cut a structural beam supporting the remains of what had been a two-story warehouse on West 131st Street. The section crumpled, burying the men in a cascade of steel beams, bricks and reinforced concrete.
“Once they cut that structural beam, the site became unstable,” Department of Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said.
Willy Katende, who lives across the street from the site, said he was in his kitchen when heard a loud noise. “I saw bricks just falling on the workers,” he said. “It sounded like a bomb. It came down so fast.”
The contractor, Breeze National Inc., was cited for two violations at the site on March 5 but had been cleared to resume work, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings said.
Calls to the Brooklyn-based company weren’t returned on Thursday.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, said it is working with Breeze and the city to determine how the incident occurred.
Investigators were looking at the demolition plan and blueprints for the building to try to learn why the workers sliced into the crucial beam. “We want to determine what they knew and if they matched the site conditions,” Mr. LiMandri said.
Permits for the demolition were issued to Toby Romano of Breeze National, according to city records. Mr. Romano was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to a year in prison for bribing an Environmental Protection Agency inspector to overlook violations at an asbestos-removal job, court papers show.
Mr. Romano couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday, but he said at the time the inspector aggressively sought the payments.
The warehouse, built in 1915, was being razed for Columbia University’s expansion into a 17-acre site just north of the main campus. The extension will include classrooms, research facilities and administrative offices. The City Council approved the project in 2007.
The project has riled some neighborhood residents and local business owners, who have been especially critical of the decision to seize private property for the expansion. Coincidentally, a protest against the project had been scheduled for Thursday night.
Firefighters who arrived on the scene after receiving a call at 7:51 a.m. found two workers partially covered by the wreckage and a third completely buried, said FDNY Deputy Chief James Nichols. It took 45 minutes to free the buried man, who had to be reached by tunneling.
Juan Ruiz, 69 years old, was one of the first men to be rescued but later died at St. Luke’s Hospital.
The two injured workers, King Range, 50, and Sakim Kirby, 30, were in serious condition at the hospital. All three had been conscious when they were taken from the site.
“It was a very difficult and hazardous removal,” Mr. Nichols said.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Ruiz came to New York 15 years ago and almost immediately began working in construction, his family said.
At Mr. Ruiz’s home in the Bronx, his 38-year-old son described a hardworking man who seldom missed a day of work, leaving each morning before 6 a.m.
“He never complained,” Juan Ruiz Jr. said. The son said his father had called the Harlem site one of the “more dangerous” he had worked on.
“He said what he was doing was dangerous, but he loved his job. He just said the building was old,” the younger Mr. Ruiz said.
Mr. LiMandri said the partial collapse left part of the site unstable, and Breeze workers had been tasked with clearing debris to make it safe for investigators.
The city issued demolition permits for the site in February, and Mr. LiMandri said an anonymous complaint about unsafe conditions prompted a surprise inspection on March 5. Breeze received citations for failing to ensure workers wore protective harnesses and failing to notify the city that demolition work had begun.
Work was stopped for two days until Breeze satisfied the buildings inspectors. The Department of Buildings was aware of the demolition work Thursday, a spokesman said.