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Saturday, May 22, 2004

New York City - News, Entertainment and Sports

New York City - News, Entertainment and Sports

This story was reported by Sean Gardiner, Luis Perez, Deborah S. Morris and Pete Bowles. It was written by Bowles.

May 21, 2004, 12:04 AM EDT


One worker was killed and two others critically injured Thursday when the substandard balcony overhang on which they were working collapsed at an apartment complex under construction in Brooklyn, authorities said.

Officials said the men were standing on top of a third-story balcony overhang pouring buckets of cement when the overhang crumbled and collapsed onto the balcony below, dropping the men more than 30 feet to the ground. A fourth worker jumped off the overhang onto the building's roof and escaped injury.

The accident occurred shortly after 10 a.m. at a three-building complex at 9718 Fort Hamilton Pkwy. in Bay Ridge near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

City Building Department officials cited the complex's owner and two subcontractors for violating two city regulations and ordered all work on the project to be stopped pending an investigation. Late Thursday, safety workers erected scaffolding and began removing the two damaged balconies and shoring up other balconies at the site.

A preliminary investigation by the Building Department found that the balconies had been erected contrary to approved plans for the three-story buildings, said Jennifer Givner, a department spokeswoman. She said the balconies were supposed to be recessed so that the building would act as a support; instead, they were erected with the use of outside support beams.

Givner said a steel beam supporting the balcony gave way, causing the balcony to pull away from the building and pancake onto a second-story balcony, which partially collapsed.

She said the building's owner, Marine Development, and two subcontractors, Big Apple Construction of Bayside and Pro Weld Fabricators, were issued violations for not following engineering plans approved by the city and for failing to have an updated work permit.

She said investigators found that the building permit for the complex, which has been under construction since 2001, expired in February. She said the firms face maximum fines of $2,500 each for working with an expired permit. Officials of the companies could not be reached for comment.

Killed in the crash of concrete and wooden scaffolding was Angelo Gungasaca, an Ecuadorian who lived in Queens. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Victory Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn.

The two other workers, Jose Fernandez, 21, of Corona and Gam Youl Bak, 41, also of Queens, were admitted to Lutheran Medical Center's trauma ward in critical condition. Fernandez suffered two broken legs and a neck injury, and Bak was unconscious, authorities said.

All three were employed by Big Apple Construction.

"I don't know what happened," Fernandez said from his hospital bed. "I only know that God has saved me."

Edgar Jaramillo, 25, said he managed to jump to safety onto the roof when he heard a noise. "I think, 'Balcony going down, I go up,'" he said, breaking into tears. "I tried to tell everybody but they didn't hear. So I just jumped."

Lenny Gungasaca, the brother of the dead worker, said Angelo Gungasaca had worked for Big Apple for three years and each week sent money to Ecuador to support his wife and two children. "I feel really bad because my brother died," he said through a translator. "I just cannot talk about it."

Brian McLaughlin, president of the city's Central Labor Council, said an investigation found that the victims were undocumented workers.

"Immigrant workers toil in some of the most hazardous employment in our country, while New York has the highest rate of immigrants killed on the job every year," McLaughlin said. "We all know these type of tragedies are completely preventable if employers would obey existing health and safety rules."

Neighbors questioned the quality of the work and said they suspected that undocumented immigrants were being used on the project.

"I feel bad for the workers," said Frances Loftus, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. "I feel they are being exploited. They are hard-working people but they need more experience. They are being taken advantage of on safety issues. It's a shame."

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