tcr-052020-Collapse

A pile of rubble sits on the 400 block of East Front Street in Traverse City on Tuesday. A wall collapsed at the site of the future Honor Bank office building. Four people were injured in the collapse.

TRAVERSE CITY — Brenda Majestic was going about her work day Tuesday morning when she noticed a tall brick wall under construction across the street was leaning over.

“I said, ‘That’s not right.’”

Majestic, assistant vice president and officer manager at State Savings Bank on East Front Street in downtown Traverse City, said she went outside and yelled across to the workers that the brick wall was leaning, pointing out the problem.

“They said they knew it was leaning,” Majestic said.

She went back inside her office to get her mobile phone to take some photos of the worrisome scene. By the time she returned, she said the wall had leaned over even more — so she quickly snapped the shot.

“After I took that shot it just came down,” Majestic said. “A couple of us did some screaming. It sent the whole office running.”

After she called 911 and requested ambulances, the bank worker said she looked closely at the photo captured just before the collapse “to get a headcount.” She and coworkers compared men walking around outside to those in the image.

“That’s when we realized there were two we couldn’t see,” Majestic said.

Four mason workers were injured — one seriously — when the Honor State Bank under construction along the Boardman River bank partially collapsed shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Two of the men were trapped under debris, but “were not completely covered by the rubble pile,” said Chief Jim Tuller of the Traverse City Fire Department.

The most seriously injured man was alert and conscious, Tuller said. Another two men had been hit by falling debris, but were up and walking around, he said.

The extrication took less than 10 minutes and all four injured men were taken to Munson Medical Center, Tuller said. No names are being released at this time, he said.

The construction site is at 415 E. Front St. The area is closed to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic from Boardman Avenue to Wellington Street. Barriers have been placed along the Boardman River so no boaters may enter the area either.

Engineers responded to the scene for an assessment before taking action to make sure the area is safe before it is opened.

The fallen structure left construction officials bewildered about what caused the incident.

“We don’t know what happened,” said David Moore, site manager and partner at general contractor REI Construction Consultants of Traverse City. “It was braced on the ends and everything.”

He said the collapsed wall had stood since May 14 — Thursday last week — even through the weekend’s rainfall and wind gusts.

Moore said workers had returned to the downtown Traverse City building site May 7.

That came after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relaxed restrictions on construction projects after having in March locked down the economy because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including forcing all commercial construction to halt.

Nothing like this has ever before happened throughout his career, Moore said.

“They were working right below it and they heard a snap and it came down,” he said Tuesday afternoon at the workplace accident scene.

“Thank the lord nobody was killed,” Moore added.

Tuller said Front Street won’t be re-opened until contractors remove debris from the site and then brace a damaged building section left standing. Until then, the chief said people are asked to avoid the area.

Tuller said there were three brick and concrete sections of the building on the west and east end of the site with an elevator shaft in the central portion of the site. The east section collapsed, damaging part of the nearby elevator shaft, he said.

Plans are to remove the top two stories from the damaged elevator shaft, both Moore and Tuller said, but it remains unknown when that will take place. Traffic on East Front Street must again be blocked when that happens.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration was notified about the incident but had not yet responded to the scene by midday, they also both confirmed.

Officials from Whiteford Associates, Inc., a Traverse City-based architectural and construction firm involved in the project, declined to comment about the collapse.

Officials from Honor Bank also did not return calls to the Record-Eagle.

Married couple Patrick and Robyn Fragel stopped to look at the scene Tuesday afternoon when they visited Paesano’s Pizza and Bubba’s restaurants to pick up takeout lunch orders.

“I’m blown away,” Robyn Fragel said from the sidewalk across the street.

Patrick Fragel, a local criminal defense and bankruptcy attorney, said he suspected there may have been workmanship problems for such a “spontaneous collapse.” He also said the incident may be indicative of fast-paced local development.

“I think it’s the natural consequence of over-building in Traverse City. It’s been too much, too fast,” Patrick Fragel said.

Moore said the project’s structural engineer determined the site safe enough to begin to remove debris Tuesday afternoon, but could not himself pinpoint the ultimate cause for the collapse.

“MIOSHA should be able to shed more light on that,” the site manager said.

According to information in an online database by the Grand Traverse County Construction Code Department, a permit was issued in mid-November to build the foundation, followed by permits on Feb. 25 and May 15 for electrical, mechanical and plumbing in the new four-story structure.

Grand Traverse County Building Official Bruce Remai could not be reached for comment.

Majestic said the wall that collapsed looked fine at the beginning of her work day Tuesday, though she admitted it was an unusual project to watch, maybe even a bit precarious.

“I sure hope nothing like that gets built like that again. It didn’t look safe. I’ve never seen anything built like that before — four or five stories built straight up,” she said.

Majestic declined to share her photos of the construction site with the Record-Eagle, but said she did give them to the Traverse City Police Department.

After the accident two bricklayers at the site who weren’t injured came into the State Savings Bank lobby, she said, to settle their nerves and drink some coffee while everyone waited for emergency responders to rescue their trapped coworkers.

If only nobody had been hurt, Majestic said.

“I wish they would have walked away when it started leaning.”

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