When cables broke on a scaffold on the 47th floor of a New York high-rise residential building on a crisp December day, it took only about 6 seconds for the two window washers who had been on the platform to plummet 500 feet to the ground. Edgar Moreno was killed instantly but, astonishingly, his brother Alcides Moreno survived the fall.
The word "miracle" is often tossed about lightly, but in this case, Alcides Moreno's survival was part miracle, part physics, and part good medicine. As Moreno fell, he clung to the scaffolding, riding it to the ground and the platform provided wind resistance that slowed his fall. While his brother Edgar struck the ground at a probable speed of about 100 miles per hour, experts say that Alcides' descent probably slowed to about 45 miles per hour. Platform cables acting like the tail of a kite may have slowed him further.
Philip Barie, chief of critical care at New York- Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who has treated fall survivors before, talked about the odds:
"You get above six stories, it gets unusual,'' he said. "You get above 10 stories, it's rare. We've had two people survive 12, one person survive 14 and one person survive 19. Forty-seven stories is uncharted territory.''
Barie said he didn't know if Moreno set a record. No, he did not, at least according to the Free Fall Research Page. The record was made by a Russian airman, who survived a 22,000 foot fall in 1942 after his bomber was attacked by German planes. (There are many other fascinating fall survival tales at this site, and Moreno's story is on the front page.)
Of course, Moreno suffered grievous injuries - broken ribs, a broken arm, shattered legs and spine damage. He was in a coma for weeks and has undergone more than 16 operations. But within a few weeks, the prognosis looked good not only for his survivability, but likelihood that he would be able to walk again. In mid-January, he was dismissed from the hospital to a rehab facility.
Few miracles, many deaths
It is sadly ironic that Morena survived a 500 foot fall, but William Bracken was killed in a 19-foot fall in a scaffold collapse in Mooreville, PA about 10 days ago. And in the city of New York alone, there have been at least two more scaffolding deaths since Moreno's fall. High winds were blamed for a scaffold collapse in Brooklyn that killed Jose Palacios in a 12-story fall last week. This followed on the heels of the death of Yuriy Vanchytskyy in a 42-story fall from the top of Trump SoHo, a condominium hotel under development.
Repeat safety violations
State records show that in the Moreno incident, the scaffolding had been cited for 10 violations in June, including four that were repeat violations. According to news reports, the brothers had complained about safety issues but were told the scaffolding was safe. Neither of the brothers were wearing safety harnesses when the accident occurred.
Repeat citations are not an uncommon story. A New York Times investigation into the collapse that killed Vanchytskyy found that his employer, DeFama Concrete, had a history of safety violations, had been fined tens of thousands of dollars in penalties, and had another worker death on record - the 2004 death of an employee who perished after falling 60 feet from the platform of a crane. In that accident, OSHA found a failure to provide sufficient safety devices. These fines and citations are apparently little more than a slap on the wrist because offending contractors are still hired to work on some of the city's most prestigious new construction projects.
Worsening employment practices and the underground economy
City Limits looks at the matter of construction safety in New York, a problem that seems to be worsening:
"According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on work fatalities, construction deaths in New York City more than doubled from 2005 to 2006, from 20 to 43. (Data for 2007 is not yet available.) Over that period, New York City also had a higher percentage of construction deaths than the U.S. overall, according to BLS: "the construction sector accounted for 43 percent of all fatalities; nationally, construction also led other sectors ... accounting for 21 percent of all job-related fatal injuries." The city's Department of Buildings (DOB), however, reported that between Jan. 1, 2007 and Oct. 31, 2007, construction-related fatalities dropped 43 percent from the same period in 2006, from 14 to 8, and injuries stayed constant - but accidents on high-rise sites increased from 23 to 42."
Part of the problem? City Limits links to and cites a recent report by the Fiscal Policy Institute (PDF) attributing much of the problem in New York construction to "worsening employment practices." City Limits summarizes this part of the report:
" ...the construction industry employs more than 200,000 workers in New York City, almost a quarter of whom work in the illegal "underground" construction industry. Not only does this lead to a half-billion-dollar annual financial loss because of unpaid payroll taxes and workers compensation premiums, according to the report, but it correlates with dangerous practices. Data from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) "indicate a strong correlation between construction fatalities and the characteristics of the underground economy: half of the deaths occurred among workers at very small construction companies, three-fourths of the workers involved worked for non-union companies, and failure to provide safety training was cited in over half of the cases."
It's a horrifying and daunting problem, but to their credit, city officials are taking action, and some improvements have occurred since 2006. A Suspended Scaffold Worker Safety Task Force was formed and several scaffolding-related laws were enacted to increase penalties. Many are also calling for an overhaul of the Department of Buildings, the regulatory body, which many fault for being slow and reactive.
Of course, all the deaths that we've discussed have occurred since these laws were enacted. The city needs to continue focusing on this issue because Alcides Moreno's story notwithstanding, the miracle plan does not make for good safety policy.
(Thanks to rawblogXport for pointers to many of the links we've cited.)