At collapsed Hard Rock Hotel site, recovery work starts for 2 bodies
A recovery mission is underway to retrieve the bodies of two New Orleans men killed in October 2019 when a Hard Rock Hotel construction site partially collapsed.
Authorities hope to reach the remains of Quinnyon Wimberly by the end of this week and Jose Ponce Arreola by the middle of next week, New Orleans Fire Chief Tim McConnell said at a news conference Monday.
“We are right now focused, as we always had been, but now we’ve actually moved from all the preparation work into actually doing the recovery part of this process,” he said.
The two men were among three workers killed on Oct. 12 when part of the 18-story building crumbled to the ground during construction. Authorities have said that it was too dangerous to retrieve the bodies of Wimberly, whose remains are trapped on the 11th floor, and Arreola, who is on an 8th-floor deck.
The body of the third worker, Anthony Magrette, 49, was removed a day after the collapse.
McConnell said that a lot of preparation has gone into the retrieval of the bodies and that he wants to ensure the safety of recovery teams.
Wimberly’s mother told NBC News that the past nine months have been difficult but that she understands why it has taken so long to retrieve the body of her son, who died exactly a month before his 37th birthday.
“It’s been a long time and it has almost been 10 months, but it’s not because they weren’t trying,” Irene Wimberly said in a phone interview Tuesday . “From Day One, I told them that I didn’t want to see anyone else hurt or killed. I wouldn’t want no one’s life to be in danger trying to get him out.”
“This is the worst thing I’ve ever had to go through,” she said. “Whatever it takes for us to get through, that’s what we’ll do. I do cry a lot. That’s my baby.”
Part of the reason it has taken so long to recover Wimberly and Arreola’s remains is that the city and the building developer have been at odds over the best way to bring the rest of the building down, according to local station WWL-TV.
In January, a tarp covering one of the bodies fell due to high winds, leaving it exposed and sparking a public outcry.
Buildings near the site have now been torn down to allow a crane access to the rubble, and infrastructure in the area had to be protected, McConnell said. Beginning Wednesday, there will be a no-fly zone to keep drones away.
“This is a tricky operation and we want to make sure that everyone is safe,” the fire chief said, adding that the recovery process is challenging “because of the amount of debris the victims are under.”
“We would not have taken this long, we’re over 10 months now. It’s very frustrating for, obviously, rescuers who do this for a living. And you can only imagine what it is for the families, what they’re going through,” he said.
McConnell said Wimberly will be more difficult to reach because of the number of floors hanging over his body. He said reaching Arreola will be challenging as well and will require teams to remove rubble that’s already collapsed.
The chief said he and Mayor LaToya Cantrell have been in constant contact with the families of the two victims.
“It’s hard to lose someone and then particularly hard to wait 10 months, where we are now, before you can get that final closure,” he said.
When the building collapsed, two giant cranes remained perched aside the wreckage. Controlled explosions on Oct. 20 brought one of the cranes down, according to NBC affiliate WDSU in New Orleans.
In addition to the three who died, dozens of people were injured in the collapse.
Arreola’s brother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the building’s developers and contractors accusing them of failing to construct the building in a manner that kept workers safe, according to NOLA.com. The brother could not be reached Tuesday.
The children of Magrette and Wimberly also filed separate lawsuits against the developers, claiming negligence caused their father’s deaths, according to WDSU.
The developer said in January that the cause of the collapse was still under investigation, and that it “relied upon design professionals to construct the building,” Engineering News-Record reported.