Families of killed and trapped workers mourn, pray

The men trapped and killed beneath the weight of five stories of collapsed concrete were hard workers and family men, according to neighbors and family members.

Carlos Hurtado Demendoza, 48, and Jose Calderon, 60, were crushed when slabs of a quadrant of an under-construction, $22.5 million parking garage “pancaked” down to the ground Wednesday at Miami Dade College’s West Campus in Doral.

Samuel Perez, 53, died in the hospital early Thursday morning after workers amputated his legs and pulled him from beneath the rubble. A fourth worker, Robert Budhoo, is believed to be trapped and is presumed dead.

The men were part of a crew of about 17 electricians, welders, painters and other construction workers were at the garage site at the time. As many as 10 others were injured. All were construction workers for the garage contractor, Ajax Building Corp., or one of its subcontractors, college spokesman Juan Mendieta said.

On Thursday, as many as 19 members of Budhoo’s family huddled in the shade of a tree and waited anxiously to hear news, hopefully that the husband and father was alive. He was an electrician with Stryker Electric, according to his family, some of whom watched Wednesday as crews pulled bodies from the wreckage.

Authorities said Thursday morning that the rescue mission had turned to a recovery effort, and work at the site slowed, which frustrated Budhoo’s family.

They wanted to get closer to the scene but were asked by officials to stay about 200 feet away. Around 4:30, cranes began to pluck concrete off the rubble and officials explained to the family that they would have to stop working after dark.

Budhoo’s brother, Donovan, said he grew up in Central Jamaica and moved to Miami almost 20 years ago with his wife and three children. He lives in Tamarac.

“He's a better man than me," said Donovan Budhoo, who last saw his brother at the Calder race track, where the men liked to play the horses. “I know I’m going to see him again.”

Budhoo’s family held out hope.

“Daddy, where ever you are please hang on,” Budhoo’s daughter, Tasha Budhoo Bagwadeen, wrote on Facebook. “GOD is there beside you, please don’t give up. You are in our prayers and MY GOD IS REAL. HE IS A MIRACLE WORKER, AND I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES.”

Other families and friends mourned too Thursday.

Armando G. Aguilar, a friend of Samuel Perez, said the victim of the collapse was a concrete truck manager for a project subcontractor. Perez’s legs were amputated more than 12 hours after the accident and died several hours later in the hospital.

Perez lived in the Colonial Acres Mobile Home Park in Northwest Miami-Dade. He was born in New York City to a Cuban mother who moved the family back to the island when he was a small child. Although an American citizen by birth, he struggled to return to the United States and did not come back to live until the mid-90s when he joined a brother in South Florida, Aguilar said.

Aguilar met Perez on “Secretos Cuba” – a web forum where Cuban issues were discussed.

“When I came to this country, I never thought that I would ever find a friendship like his that was equal to the ones I had in childhood,” Aguilar said. “It hurts to know how much he must have suffered.”

In Cuba, Perez was a technician in the veterinary field and in Miami worked several odd jobs until he settled in the construction business. He leaves a son in Cuba, another who arrived in the United States recently, and his wife’s children, who he raised. He and his wife, Migdalia Lopez, have been together since 1996, according to Perez’ Facebook page.

"His wife is destroyed," said Janet Romera, who lives next door. "The poor woman doesn't want to talk to anybody about this. They're a humble family. He's a hard worker and provided for his family."

In Kendale Lakes, where Hurtado lived, a note posted on his door asked reporters to respect the family’s privacy.

Jose Calderon, who also died, worked more than 30 years in construction and had two children, according to WSVN.

“He loved his job so much, for 30 years” his wife told the station.

Bill Byrne, president of Ajax Building, came to the site of the collapse Thursday and said his company is working with local, state and federal authorities to determine what caused the collapse.

“At this time, we are properly focused on the tragic loss of life ... and helping the families involved,” said Byrne, who at times appeared distraught.

Authorities and Byrne wouldn’t yet say what caused the collapse and said they wouldn’t speculate.

“We’re working on the recovery effort but it’s going to take time. We’re trying to come up with a plan to move as quickly as possible while making sure that no one else gets hurt,” Doral Police Chief Ricardo Gomez said. “There are various theories as to how it happened but that’s going to be a question for the engineers.”

While hundreds of rescuers scoured the wreckage Wednesday, the site was far calmer Thursday. Engineers and workers with hard hats mostly looked at what remained of the parking deck. Two cranes towered over the construction site. A third crane was parked down the street outside the construction site.

The campus was to remain closed at least until the end of the week to the nearly 8,000 students who attend.

Groups of police clutching clipboards huddled with men in fluorescent vests who periodically climbed down from the pile of rubble.

The garage, scheduled to open in December, was to alleviate parking for the fast-growing campus, which opened in 2007. The West Campus had been growing at an astounding 40 percent annually, and a warehouse was being used for parking.

The college has been working on renovating the campus to better accommodate student demand. The garage would have had the capacity to house at least 1,500 vehicles.

The section of the garage that fell was the final piece, with a wall to be used by the college as a movie screen or a theatrical backdrop.

Byrne said that the catastrophe was the worst in his career. He said there was “no warning whatsoever” and that while projects like this one are “fast-paced” on a deadline, he said the work was not rushed.

The company said on its website in an Oct. 1 update that the garage’s civil infrastructure had been installed along the courtyard and amphitheater.

A concrete subcontractor was working on ramps and stairs. The structural steel subcontractor was installing the roof steel assembly. Waterproofing had begun on the second floor.

On Wednesday, something went horribly wrong.

“It sounded like thunder. The whole place shook,’’ said Miami Dade College Professor William Duba, who was in a stairwell in another building, when he heard the garage crumble.

Miami-Dade College is bringing in structural engineers to check the stability of a next-door classroom building shook by the garage collapse, according to school spokesman Juan Mendieta.

The collapse caused officials to evacuate the campus and close roads Wednesday. Traffic on 115th Avenue remains closed to all but local traffic.

Miami Herald staff writers Paradise Afshar, Julie Brown, Audra Burch, Jessica DeLeon, Anna Edgerton, Diana Moskovitz, Mike Vasquez, Luisa Yanez, El Nuevo Herald staff writer Melissa Sanchez, and researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

Related stories from Miami Herald