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Family of trapped worker in limbo as search stalls

It’s been two days since the floors and trusses of a Miami Dade College West Campus parking garage collapsed, killing three men, hospitalizing seven others and trapping Robert Budhoo beneath an unstable pile of rubble.

And with sunset in sight, and little activity to show that an ongoing recovery mission is indeed ongoing, Budhoo’s family vented Friday afternoon.

“My brother is still down there,” said Henrietta Robinson, Budhoo’s older sister. “For the other man they worked until 1:30 [a.m.] but for my brother they couldn't use lights? They told my brother Donovan that whoever is down there is dead, if that's so then take him out if he's dead or alive. It's been three days.”

Budhoo, an electrician with subcontractor Stryker Electric, according to his family, was working at the college campus in Doral Wednesday when the final quadrant of the five-story project collapsed. Levels of the northeast section slammed down on each other, kicking up dust high into the air and trapping workers beneath.

Authorities do not believe Budhoo, 53, survived.

“We have an idea where he is but he is still buried in that rubble...our dogs hit on him,” said Detective Javier Baez, spokesman for Miami-Dade police. “We will continue searching until we find him.”

Budhoo’s large family, many of whom are staying at a nearby Hampton Inn, has for the last two days huddled and waited for news that he had been found, hopefully alive.

The wait has been frustrating for his family, who have not been allowed close to the site.

Laura Budhoo, the missing man’s wife, leaned on her daughter and cried in the parking lot outside the hotel.

“I still believe my husband is alive,” she said. “I know it's a dangerous area, but all I want is for them to try.”

Tasha Bagwandeen, Budhoo’s 28-year-old daughter, said “whatever chance my father has they're limiting it.”

Authorities ended the search around sundown Thursday and their efforts appeared to move slowly Friday. Officials said the slow pace of the search is due to the instability of the site, because moving one piece of rubble could shift the precarious pile of heavy concrete.

Three other workers have already been declared dead. Another seven were taken to the hospital.

The $22.5 million parking garage, built by contractor Ajax Building Corp., was being constructed using a pre-cast concrete design in which the building is assembled on site from pieces hoisted into place like a giant Erector set.

The structure remains potentially unstable until the pieces are permanently connected by welding or bolting them together once they’re all in place, and some experts speculated early on that the crash could have been caused by a crane operator.

On Friday, Ajax president William Byrne acknowledged the incident during a news conference Friday.

He said the crane struck a garage column in the outer portion of the building, but did not say if the impact happened in the northeast quadrant that collapsed.

“It’s my understanding that there was an incident where the crane bumped a column but it didn’t cause any damage to the column,” said Byrne. “The crane was repaired and inspected and it was recertified. And the engineers, it’s my understanding, looked at the column and deemed that it was perfectly fine.”

However, a spokesman for Miami Dade College, which has its own building department and conducts its own permitting and construction inspections, said the school was not told about the incident. He said that should have happened.

“I would think that would raise itself to the point it was communicated to the college,” said spokesman Juan Mendieta. “Obviously there is concern, especially when lives have been lost. We’re gong to conduct our own review and hopefully get answers

Company representatives said they were working to comment on whether that indeed was the case.

Byrne said Friday morning that “speculation does not help the process.”

“As far as the cause of the accident, we’re not going to go into that. It’s just too early to tell. OSHA will be the one to determine that." he said.

Les Grove, area director for the Fort Lauderdale office of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is investigating, declined to discuss the apparent incident with the crane or any details of what may have caused the collapse.

Miami Herald staff writer Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.

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