Workman Dies in Concrete Tomb : Frantic Efforts to Save Victim Fail; 13 Injured

Times Staff Writer

One construction worker--buried alive in freshly poured concrete--was killed and 13 other workers suffered leg and back injuries Monday when the decking collapsed on the ground floor of an apartment building under construction in West Hollywood.

James Ziola, 29, of Canoga Park was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was taken after 15 Los Angeles County firefighters, racing frantically against time with shovels and their bare hands, dug him out from under two feet of wet concrete.

Ziola, submerged in the mud-like concrete for almost an hour, had been in the building's subterranean garage checking the steel posts that shore up the decking when the collapse occurred shortly after 10 a.m.

Like a bursting dam, more than 10 tons of concrete and seven tons of metal reinforcement rained down on the underground garage, causing 25 workers atop the decking to flee in terror.

The 13 injured workers, rushed by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai, Midway and UCLA medical centers, were treated and released.

The collapse began with "a loud snap," said Steve Buckles, a concrete pump operator. "Then I saw the men start to scurry to the edge of the deck."

One of those men was Claude Numa, 44, a concrete finisher who suffered a neck injury in addition to bruises and scrapes.

"In a flash, the whole section collapsed," said Numa as he awaited medical treatment at the scene. "I was running, trying to get out of the way when I fell over the heavy pieces of steel sticking out of the ground."

Another injured finisher, Traveon Adams, called it "the scariest thing I ever saw. I knew someone was below. We always have someone checking the shoring. I can't believe it happened."

In all, 13 engine companies with more 100 county firefighters went to the building site in the 900 block of North Doheny Drive, a neighborhood of low-rise apartment buildings two blocks south of the Sunset Strip.

As a small crowd of local residents looked on, the firefighters, with helicopters circling overhead to provide assistance if needed, worked feverishly to free the dying victim.

But Ziola, who witnesses said had gone under the decking to check a possible shoring problem, suffered massive head and chest injuries and could not be resuscitated, hospital officials said.

Authorities at the scene were at a loss to explain why the decking gave way, saying that the site had been inspected by the West Hollywood Building and Safety Department as recently as Friday. Moreover, four county-registered private inspectors hired by the general contractor, Homestead Building Construction Co. of West Los Angeles, were on hand when the 60-by-40-foot section of decking collapsed, West Hollywood Public Information Officer Helen J. Goss said.

"This doesn't happen very often," said Buckles, 31, of Downey. "Usually, when they fall it's the first thing in the morning because we start at the edge and maybe the edge will let go a little bit.

"Usually it just falls a little bit and they get down under there and shore it back up," added Buckles, employed by a subcontractor for the four-story, 41-apartment project.

Homestead officials were not available for interviews Monday but they released a one-paragraph statement saying that "the job has always been maintained in accordance with applicable safety and construction requirements."

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, in conjunction with county firefighters, sheriff's deputies and West Hollywood city officials, immediately launched a criminal investigation to determine whether there were safety violations.

According to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Homestead was cited for 19 non-criminal safety violations at building sites in Los Angeles during a two-year period from April, 1985, to March, 1987. Four of the 19 violations were classified as "serious," meaning they carried fines, a Cal/OSHA spokesman said.

In April, 1985, the company was cited for performing excavation work without adequate safety measures and for failing to properly guard floor, roof or wall openings. In November, 1985, it was cited for failing to provide railings on all open sides of scaffolding, ramps and elevated platforms. And in March, 1987, Homestead was cited for repeating a "serious" violation of failing to place proper railings around stairways under construction, state officials said.

About 2,000 construction workers die each year across the nation, but such fatalities are relatively rare in Los Angeles, which has only about 25% of the construction accidents and deaths of other major cities, said Joseph Kinney, executive director of the Chicago-based National Safe Workplace Institute.

Between 1979 and 1986, he said, there were 21 construction fatalities in the city of Los Angeles, compared to 83 in New York. Construction workers experience the highest rate of injury of any major work group, Kinney added. "One of every six construction workers can anticipate being injured and temporarily disabled each year," he said.

Times staff writers Bob Baker, Stephen Chavez and Andrea Ford contributed to this story.

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