COSTA MESA — His co-workers said from the time he punched in to the time he punched out, Huy Pham focused on one thing: doing his job, and doing it well.
“You could see in his work how much he appreciated his job,” said Daniel Jojola, who worked alongside Pham, a Costa Mesa city maintenance worker. “He liked his job. This was his life.”
Along with 208 other city employees, Pham, 29, was set to receive a layoff notice Thursday. The Fountain Valley man never collected the manila envelope containing a letter signifying that his job would be outsourced in six months to the day.
Instead, Pham, who had been training for a mountain climbing trip in the Himalayas, went to the roof of City Hall and jumped to his death.
Public Services Director Peter Naghavi had Pham’s layoff notice with him when he went to the city maintenance offices on Placentia Avenue to hand them out to workers Thursday.
But Pham wasn’t there. At about 3:20 p.m., witnesses saw him leap from the eastern rooftop at City Hall, five stories up.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on the same day, in the same hour notices were going out, he made his decision,” Naghavi said Friday.
Pham’s fellow city employees said they have been on an emotional roller coaster in the hours before and since his suicide.
Anxiety about the possible layoffs and not knowing whether others would replace them in their jobs — mixed in with anger toward the City Council and grief over the death of a friend and co-worker — have poured out.
Some employees flew into rage as City Council members arrived at the scene of Pham’s death Thursday. One man had to be held back by co-workers, and another cursed at Chief Executive Tom Hatch in the City Hall lobby, witnesses said.
“I feel as if the council and their quick-acting decisions pushed [Pham] over the edge,” Jojola said Friday as friends and co-workers gathered for a lunch next to the makeshift memorial for Pham at the spot where his body landed.
Noticeably absent from City Hall in the hours after Pham’s death was Mayor Gary Monahan, who was working the St. Patrick’s Day night shift at his bar, Skosh Monahan’s, about 2 miles away on Newport Boulevard.
“We’re in a family crisis here,” said Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. (CMCEA), which could bear the brunt of the layoffs.
“Yesterday [Thursday] we had former council members come and be part of that family, and the mayor chose not to,” she added. “That says it all.”
At a press conference about Pham that convened at City Hall on Friday afternoon, Monahan refused to answer reporters’ questions about why he didn’t go to City Hall the day before. He initially only offered a timid “no comment” before he and other City Council members walked away.
About half an hour later, an official statement was sent to reporters’ e-mail inboxes.
The mayor expressed sadness at Pham’s death but also struck a defiant note against people who had criticized him for the circulated pictures of him posing outside his restaurant in St. Patrick’s Day garb.
“What is lost in all of the rhetoric is the fact that this is a tragic incident in the midst of a very difficult situation …" Monahan wrote.
“Before I was informed of yesterday’s incident, the union decided to take despicable advantage of this tragic situation to advance their agenda,” he added. “Had I known what transpired, I never would have agreed to pose for photos or engage in any revelry.”
Monahan’s statement continued: “I became informed of the situation and contacted two of my fellow council members, who were on the scene, and quickly brought me up to speed with the details of the situation. After learning of the volatility of the situation, I realized that my presence could further inflame and escalate the situation, and decided not to visit city hall.”
City officials project city pension costs to skyrocket in the next few years. The City Council voted 4 to 1 earlier this month to lay off hundreds of workers to help balance future budgets. If city leaders don’t find an adequate outside company to replace the city services, they can rescind the layoff notices.
Pham had been a city worker for four and a half years, starting as a part-time employee until getting hired full time.
He excelled in construction classes at Orange Coast College, co-workers said, and was as dependable as they come.
“For being 29 years old, you’d think he had the experience of someone who was 60,” said John Aguilar, Pham’s boss and a facility and equipment supervisor.
Pham could lay drywall, work plumbing and do everything in between, said his co-worker, Manny Villa.
“It wasn’t about the money; it was about the work,” said John Pham, Pham’s brother. “I think it was the happiest time in his life when he worked.”
Like everyone, city workers said, Pham knew layoff notices were coming.
John Pham said his brother was hoping his job would be saved, or at least that he would be hired by the replacement company. He didn’t seem despondent, his brother said.
Pham had been on medical leave with a broken ankle for the last month and a half. He injured himself while rock climbing, an activity that was part of his training to scale Mt. Everest, Jojola said.
John Pham said his brother had recently quit smoking and wanted to go to the base camp of the Himalayas this year.
City officials said he helped support his family in Fountain Valley. He was unmarried and had no children.
The city brought in counselors to talk to grieving employees.
The Costa Mesa Community Foundation established the Employee Memorial Donation fund Friday to help support the Phams. Donations can be sent to the Costa Mesa Community Foundation, P.O. Box 10268, Costa Mesa, CA 92627, in care of Huy Pham.
How Pham’s suicide could affect city plans to possibly lay off more than 40% of its workforce is still unclear.
Hatch said it was too early to consider what changes, if any, the city would make to how it deals with outsourcing in the coming months. He announced at Friday’s press conference the city has hired a Costa Mesa-based outside consulting firm, GrowthPort Partners, Inc., to see the city through the process.
A legal battle could be on the horizon as well.
In a letter sent to Hatch on Thursday, lawyers for the CMCEA argued the city is violating its agreement with the association and needs to wait until its current agreement expires in 2013.
“The failure of the city to take this action will force CMCEA to pursue all available legal remedies to set aside the city’s decision so as to protect the jobs of employees it represents,” the letter stated.
Pham’s family, including his co-workers, were to hold a candlelight vigil for him on the east side of city hall Friday night.
Staff writer Sarah Peters also contributed to this report.