A dozen activists and local officials gathered Wednesday in the shadow of cranes powering Charlotte's building boom to demand higher worker safety standards and answers in the accident that killed a 24-year-old worker last week at a new skyscraper.
"We're here to hold people accountable," said Isael Mejia, at the protest on Stonewall Street, organized by the North Carolina AFL-CIO. "We want to stand up and say this can be prevented."
Behind him, workers peered out from the exposed upper floors of the building, as cranes swung overhead and the growl of diesel engines occasionally drowned out the speakers. A sign on the construction fence read "This team has SAFELY worked ___ days."
Juventino Mata-Hernandez died on Wednesday, when police said he somehow fell from a construction elevator. The worker, father of a 3-year-old girl, plunged from the 19th floor, landing on a small platform next to the elevator's base. He was pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene.
Investigators have been tight-lipped about the fatality. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have declined to comment further, while the N.C. Department of Labor, the primary investigative agency, has said they can't comment on an investigation that's underway. It could be months before investigators wrap up the probe.
Wes Cotter, a spokesman for general contractor Gilbane Building Co., said the company is cooperating with authorities in the investigation and could not provide further information while it remains ongoing.
"It was a terrible accident, but no one should think we're not following the highest safety standards," he said.
Mauricio Gonzalez, Mata-Hernandez's uncle, said the family still doesn't have answers about what led to his death.
"We don't know exactly what happened," said Gonzalez. "He supported all his family, his parents, his daughter. ... He never had a problem with anybody."
At 640 feet, the new tower at Legacy Union will be the fourth-tallest building in uptown when it's complete in 2019. Developed by Charlotte-based Lincoln Harris, the 33-story building is the tallest under construction right now in Charlotte. Workers have built about 25 floors of the tower, and Bank of America has leased more than half the space.
The office building, on the former site of the Charlotte Observer, is the first phase of a major redevelopment that's planned to include residences, hotels, shops and restaurants on the prominent site next to Bank of America stadium.
Workers deserve better protections, the speakers said, and need more training. Some speakers described safety briefings around at sites around Charlotte conducted exclusively in English, even though many workers only speak Spanish.
"These are not just nameless and faceless people," said Ray McKinnon, pastor of South Tryon Community United Methodist Church. "Sixty people a day are moving to this city, and it's largely because of people like Juventino Mata-Hernandez who are building it."
Jose Mata, the worker's cousin, told Observer news partner WBTV last week that he came from Mexico two years ago.
“He had big plans to work hard, make money, and be successful at something,” Mata, who was also working at the construction site, told WBTV. He said that he had been on the construction elevator before the accident, but got off on the 14th floor while Mata-Hernandez continued up.
“The elevator started to shake,” he said. “And he was thrown out. At that point, I don’t know anymore."