Disaster Awaits a Block Away from Construction Collapse Death, Suit Claims

By Greg B. Smith | March 8, 2023

Inspectors discovered another unstable wall about to collapse, just steps from where a laborer died in Chinatown while doing demolition on Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon New York City registered its first construction worker death this year when a wall collapsed on a 64-year-old laborer doing demolition inside a building at 126 Lafayette St. in Chinatown.

Less than 24 hours later, a lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court revealed the potential for similar disaster just a block north of the site of that fatality.

At 158 Lafayette St. inspectors have discovered that a rear wall of the six-story structure is in danger of collapse, according to the lawsuit filed early Wednesday.

The building has been in receivership since March 2022, after the owner defaulted on the mortgage.

In January, the Department of Buildings (DOB) ordered the receiver, Steven J. Smith, to hire a licensed engineer and registered contractor to “safely demolish the brick parapet wall on the side of the building adjacent” to a Crosby Street building where DOB had issued a partial vacate order. The owner must also “take additional actions at the site to make the structure safe,” the agency said.

If that doesn’t happen, DOB warned that it could issue an “emergency declaration,” which would mean the city would pay a contractor to fix the problem and then bill the owner.

On February 24, an engineering firm hired by the receiver, O&S Engineers & Architects, inspected the property and found a dangerously unstable wall adjacent to the 13 Crosby St. building next door.

According to the report by Tariq Wasti of O&S, “deteriorated masonry party wall sections requiring repairs were noted at multiple locations,” including a “fourth floor building corner condition inadequately shored by previous work.”

“We observed unsafe conditions that require the immediate installation of site protection to protect tenants and the public,” Wasti wrote in a letter to Smith.

A mere 20 hours after the disaster at 126 Lafayette St., Smith filed a lawsuit against the owner of a different adjacent building, at 145 Grand St., who has been denying access to that property, which Smith alleges is necessary to fix the problem at 158 Lafayette, according to the suit.

“Without these immediate protections,” Smith alleges in the lawsuit, “there is a risk that the property will deteriorate and/or collapse, causing risk to the safety and security of the neighboring properties and the general public.”

Disaster at 126 Lafayette

DOB officials said that shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday, a floor at 126 Lafayette — which inspectors now believe was overloaded — collapsed. That triggered the rear wall to fall, trapping one laborer under the rubble. Three other workers fell on top of the debris, officials said.

Firefighters managed to pull the worker out from under the pile, but he was transported to Bellevue Hospital with life-threatening injuries. He later died, officials said, becoming the city’s first construction fatality of the year.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration counted 22 construction worker deaths last year, surpassing the previous record of 20 in 2015.

DOB had previously issued five safety violations at 126 Lafayette, including one for an overloaded floor.

On Wednesday, agency spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said those violations had been resolved, although they remain open while DOB awaits documentation from the owner certifying that the problems were addressed.

Rudansky said DOB’s investigation into the cause of the collapse at 126 Lafayette is ongoing, and that the department is monitoring the unsafe conditions two blocks north at 158 Lafayette.

Agency officials “stand ready to take additional action in the interest of public safety, if our orders are not followed and the condition of the structure continues to deteriorate,” he said in response to questions from THE CITY.

The lawsuit filed by Smith warns that “unsafe conditions” at 158 Lafayette could affect four adjacent properties on Grand Street. The receiver asserted that they must install protection of those properties before they can shore up the precarious wall at 158 Lafayette.

Resolution of this condition remains on hold, however, because one of the adjacent building owners has not responded to repeated requests for access to his property, the suit alleges. The receiver has asked a judge to order that owner to grant access immediately.

Jaimee Katz Sussner, an attorney representing the receiver, did not respond to THE CITY’s calls seeking comment.

This story was published on March 8, 2023 by THE CITY.
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