Down a dusty road well traveled by dump trucks filled with rock, rescue workers were conducting a desperate but deliberate search for a man who disappeared in a soaring silo of cement when a roof gave way Friday morning.
Miami-Dade’s search team arrived with listening devices, cranes and a canine squad poised to dig through rubble to find the worker who plummeted about 12 stories into the tightly packed powdered cement.
“We’re taking this minute by minute,” said Search and Rescue Chief Alan Perry, of Miami-Dade Fire. “This team has been in Haiti and the World Trade Center, so they know what they’re doing.”
As the teams worked into the afternoon, interrupted by weather and strategy sessions, they hoped to find a survivor.
“We always treat all rescues as if the person is alive,” Perry said.
They looked through infrared cameras. Dropped into the partially filled silo inside a crane-operated bucket. Yelled the man’s name into the gaping maw.
After 5 p.m. Friday, more than eight hours after the mission began – and with no signs of life - rescue workers made a key decision:
The mission became one of recovery — to find a body, not a survivor.
Presumed dead: Pierre Mezidor, 58, of North Miami.
The huge silos at the Titan America plant – 200 feet tall and about 50 feet wide – loom like a small city of industrial skyscrapers towering over the Medley plant where cement powder is produced and bagged for distribution.
The roof of one of the seven silos collapsed around 8:30 Friday morning, sending Mezidor plummeting.
He was wearing a helmet, walking on top of the silo. His job was to measure the level of the dry cement powder inside. When the roof caved, he dropped at least 140 feet.
If he survived the impact, he had no cellphone or radio – no way to communicate.
More than 50 firefighters and rescuers descended on the plant,11000 NW 121st Way, and went to work, Fire Rescue spokesman Arnold Piedrahita said.
“If the fall didn’t kill him, then being engulfed in cement powder asphyxiated him,” he said.
Mezidor’s family, reached late Friday, fears the worst.
“Just yesterday, he was playing with his grandaughter who just turned 2,” said Mezidor’s stepdaughter, Sophia Pierre. “When he got home from work yesterday night, he went straight to sleep. He works crazy early and late-night shifts that often rotate.”
Mezidor, who is from Haiti, has been an employee at the plant for 19 years, his family said. His 16-year-old son, Christopher, described his father as a good dad.
“I feel depressed knowing I won’t see him again,” he said. “He believed in me a lot.’’
Marie, Mezidor’s wife of 18 years, said she was “too hysterical to talk much” but described him as a “generous helper.”
Kate McClain, a Titan spokeswoman, released a statement saying company leaders “deeply regret the incident and emphasize that employee safety is their primary concern.”
At the end of the day, crews brought in generators and lights and are expected to work through the night to find a body.
The reason for the collapse is not known, she said, but promises an “exhaustive follow-up investigation” with Miami-Dade police.
Like many industrial plants, this one has seen its share of injury and trouble: broken necks, crushed limbs, slips and falls — but no deaths, according to records.
Since 1983, there have been three accidents at the plant, operated by Tarmac Cement and owned by Titan America, that resulted in "permanent or partial disability," according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In 2003, an employee lost the end of a finger from a shifting brace while working on a mill bolt.
In 1992, a power line fell on a worker as he moved fans and pumps.
Also in 1992, falling motor stabbed a worker in the abdomen.
Behind the main gate with armed guards, the industrial complex is a world away from the flashier side of South Florida.
The silos store cement powder, a mix of calcium, silicon, aluminum and iron, ground into the fine dust that is fed into a kiln and cooked at extremely high temperatures – 3,400 degrees Fahrenheit, or one-third the temperature of the sun, according to the company.
The silo in which Mezidor fell is part of the last step in production, where the cooled-down powder is stored before it is shipped in bulk to buyers.
When the roof of the silo collapsed, the elevated metal walkway stretching across three of the structures was pulled down with it, damaging the roof of a neighboring silo. Although rescue workers ventured up there shortly after the roof collapsed, it was later deemed unsafe.
Early in the afternoon they brought in two 200-foot cranes with a “man bucket” for what fire spokesman Piedrahita described as a “tedious and methodical operation.”
Even as he wiped the sweat from his eyes, Piedrahita explained that the hot, dry weather was "ideal" for the rescue operation, as it is for recovery mode.
“Rain would be a disaster,” he said. “With the cement in an open silo, that would be a real mess.”
The rescue effort was briefly suspended mid-afternoon when dark clouds opened up, sending a deluge that all but destroyed any chance of rescuing Mezidor.
After the rain stopped, Miami-Dade police homicide bureau stepped in to handle the investigation.