Huerta’s wife, Maria Guazhco, said her husband had told her that after 17 years with the company, he would try to find another job. Nonetheless, she said, he returned to the site the next week.
“And then,” Guazhco, 39, said, “everything collapsed.”
Huerta, 46, was killed Aug. 27 after the third floor of the building where he was working crumbled, burying and trapping his body under hundreds of pounds of rubble.
He was one of 12 people, 10 of them Latino, who died in construction-related accidents last year, according to preliminary data from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a workers’ safety advocacy group, and the Department of Buildings. The number of construction-related deaths has been consistent for the past four years.
Huerta’s death reflects the dangers that persist at New York construction sites despite the reams of rules and regulations the city has imposed to protect workers, many of whom, like Huerta, are Latino and in the country illegally. The families left behind have little recourse to fill the financial void created by such tragedies.
From 2006 to 2016, nearly half the workers at nonunion job sites in the city were Hispanic or Latino, compared with about 30% at union sites, according to Lawrence Mishel, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. The slice of workers at nonunion sites who are Hispanic or Latino is probably more than 50% now, Mishel said.
Unauthorized immigrant workers are less likely to have the same safeguards as other workers.
“ Oftentimes, workers who are not documented are afraid to speak up because of their status,” said Rubén Colón, a representative of the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters union. “Employers, unscrupulous contractors, take advantage of this and push the envelope.”
Shortly after Huerta died, the city issued a stop work order to the contractor at the Bronx site, Pioneer General Construction Co. The company was also ordered to cease operations at a site in Brooklyn, city records show.
The Department of Buildings subsequently issued Pioneer General a violation for failing to notify the city about the accident that resulted in Huerta’s death, and the company was fined $25,000. A multiagency investigation into the accident is continuing.
Pioneer General did not respond to several requests for comment.
On the morning of the fatal accident, Guazhco did not wake up early enough to make coffee and lunch for her husband, as was her routine. Huerta had planned to go to Queens after work to buy school supplies for three of their five children. The first day of school was days away.
“He told me, ‘See you in the afternoon,’” she said.
The two met in Ecuador through family members. Her sister had married one of Huerta’s cousins, and she had noticed him at a family event. It was love at first sight, she said.
Huerta crossed the border from Mexico into the United States in 2001. He had traveled there from his hometown, Cuenca, in southern Ecuador, where he also worked in construction. He made his way to New York, where relatives did construction work. Guazhco, who was pregnant at the time, followed him.
They had two children in Ecuador and three in the United States, including twins who were born in 2015.
On a regular day, Huerta would pick up the twins from day care after he left the construction site. Guazhco works at a Bronx nail salon.
At around noon on Aug. 27, she got a call from one of her husband’s brothers, who told her that Huerta had been involved in a serious accident. She rushed to the site.
Huerta had spent most of the morning with Manuel Huerta, his nephew, on the building’s second floor, passing buckets of bricks and blocks to another worker who stood atop a scaffolding on the same floor. For almost four hours, Manuel Huerta said, the men passed blocks like a “human chain” to the rest of the men, who piled them on beams on the third floor.
They were almost done when Segundo Huerta told his nephew to head to the third floor to help the other men.
Not long afterward, Manuel Huerta said, the building suddenly crumbled. “It just gave in all at once,” he said.
Six of the seven men working at the site at the time made it out. But nobody could find Segundo Huerta.
Guazhco started her own search when she arrived at the scene. She climbed into each ambulance she saw, hoping to find her husband. One worker told her not to keep looking, she recalled.
“Segundo is inside,” she remembered the worker telling her. “He got lost there.”
In the weeks after Huerta’s death, members of the Workers Justice Project, an advocacy group, said that they had been contacted by an acquaintance of someone who was working at the Bronx site.
The acquaintance told the agency that workers believed the site might be unsafe, but that they had been afraid to speak up. People associated with the Workers Justice Project said they had been shown photos of the site, which were shared with The New York Times, that captured a ceiling dipping under the weight of the material stacked above it.
Proving that a contractor is directly responsible for a worker’s death can be difficult, city officials said. Instead of criminal charges, contractors often face fines for safety violations or other wrongdoing; orders to stop or slow work; or, in more serious cases, a suspension or revocation of their licenses.
In 2018, 25 construction-related arrests were made for violations such as bribery, bid-rigging or wage theft, according to the city’s Department of Investigation.
Contractors found criminally liable under New York state law for a worker’s death can be fined a maximum of $10,000, an amount that worker’s advocates called paltry. The city said that contractors typically faced additional fines for other violations.
The accident in the Bronx was not the first in which a worker for Pioneer General was injured on the job. In 2018, two workers involved in separate accidents sued the company over what they said were unsafe working conditions. Both lawsuits remain active.
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Abazi Okoro, the superintendent of construction listed on the permit for the Bronx site — who is required to be present whenever work is taking place — was not there on the day of Huerta’s death, several workers said.
Okoro could not be reached for comment.
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Guazhco has experienced considerable financial pressure since her husband’s death, starting with the cost of returning his body to Ecuador. Several law firms contacted her after the accident, and she decided to pursue a lawsuit.
Guazhco said she was still trying to explain to the couple’s 4-year-old twins what had happened to their father.
In addition to having to come up with the $2,000 monthly rent on her apartment, she must also take care of tasks that her husband typically handled.
The couple’s eldest child, a daughter who lives in the family’s Bronx apartment, recently gave birth to a baby girl. The daughter, also named Maria Huerta, 20, said that she had named the baby “Esperanza” — “hope” in Spanish — to reflect what her arrival meant after Huerta’s death.
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On a recent night, another daughter, Mirian, came into the kitchen occasionally to help her mother with one of the twins. Mirian was a new presence in the home. She had been detained by immigration authorities in Louisiana last June after trying to enter the United States from Ecuador. She had been released to attend her father’s funeral, and she hoped to get permission to stay with her family permanently.
For Guazhco, having both daughters living at home had been comforting. But it had also meant more people to feed. The demands of being responsible for the five children, Guazhco said, had sometimes been unbearable.
“There are moments when I do not want to get home because I have so many things on my mind,” she said through tears. “But I have to for my children, for my little ones.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .