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Firefighters Shield Body Trapped in Rubble of New Orleans Hotel

Katy Reckdahl and Richard Fausset
The site of a partially collapsed Hard Rock Hotel under construction, near the French Quarter of New Orleans, on Oct. 12, 2019. (Annie Flanagan/The New York Times)

NEW ORLEANS — The partially collapsed Hard Rock Hotel at the edge of the French Quarter was already the site of tragedy — and, for several months as the authorities have been unable to enter the dangerously unstable building, it has been an eyesore.

Then this week, it transformed into something more macabre when a red tarp flew off one of the pancaked upper stories, revealing the dangling legs of a corpse that has been wedged under the rubble since October.

The indignity — which circulated in graphic photos on social media — ended Wednesday when firefighters traversed the site to place a yellow tarp that blocked views of the remains. Bodies of two victims have been trapped since the 18-story building collapsed Oct. 12.

“Firefighters are proceeding with extreme caution and doing their best to make a bad situation better for the families that are suffering,” Timothy McConnell, the superintendent of the Fire Department, said in a news conference while tarps were being transported.

He said that they were using heavier ropes than before and that several tarps were torn and ripped in the process. Routes previously used by workers, he said, were found to be inaccessible because of debris.

“You don’t put lives at risk — even for injury — to do a recovery,” he said. “It’s just not acceptable in anybody’s mind.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a Democrat, has approved a plan for a “controlled demolition” of the site to begin in mid-March. Once the demolition is completed, a search and rescue team will go in to recover the remains of the victims, Quinnyon Wimberly, 36, and Jose Ponce Arreola, 63, both of whom were construction workers at the site, city officials said last year.

For now, there is embarrassment and anger — some of it directed at the city, some at the developers of the project — and a feeling that this could not have come at a worse time. The New Orleans economy relies heavily on tourism, particularly during the festive season leading up to Mardi Gras, which this year falls on Feb. 25. The city’s Mardi Gras celebrations attract an estimated 1 million visitors.

When the body was visible to passersby Wednesday, a crowd gathered on North Rampart Street to look at it. The mood was somber. “How do you have a celebratory spirit at Mardi Gras?” asked Tracy Riley, 48. “How can you second-line past this corner knowing that this is waving over our city?”

Riley, a retired U.S. Army major, said there had to be a way to extricate the remains.

“Sure, it’s complicated, but it’s doable,” she said. “It makes me believe that leaving him there was based on profit-loss equations, not on what’s best for humanity.”

The collapse of the hotel sent a frightening hail of metal and debris into the streets on a Saturday morning, killing three people, injuring more than a dozen others and leaving behind an ugly, hulking ruin, the condition of which has deteriorated in the ensuing weeks, city officials said. There were early plans to implode the building, but the developers said in November that an implosion would create a wide debris field that could damage surrounding buildings in one of the nation’s most storied, and historic, neighborhoods.

City officials say the current “controlled demolition” plan is safer and should not damage surrounding buildings, although three will have to be torn down in the process, said Beau Tidwell, communications director for the city of New Orleans.

The buildings are owned by members of the hotel’s development group, according to The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, the city’s newspaper. Critics have noted their historical significance and argued that tearing them down could end up benefiting the developers.

Several lawsuits have since been filed against the developers. One, filed on behalf of people who say they were injured in the collapse, claims that the developers were negligent and that they failed, among other things, to design the building “in a manner that could bear the loads the structure was intended to hold.”

The lawsuit notes that Praveen Kailas, who is associated with Kailas Cos. LLC, which was developing the hotel and owns the site, was convicted of conspiracy and theft in 2013. Kailas was sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to the federal charges, which related to overbilling by one of his companies as part of a federally funded recovery program after Hurricane Katrina.

It was not clear Wednesday whether a criminal investigation of the hotel collapse was underway. A spokesman for the local district attorney declined to comment, and calls to the U.S. attorney’s office were not returned. Attempts to reach Kailas were unsuccessful.

Hard Rock International has noted that the hotel was being built as part of a licensing agreement, and that it was not involved in the construction.

The purple and yellow and gray building looks from a distance as if it has been partially melted, with one top corner collapsed on itself. It is not only a blight on the skyline, but also a significant challenge for Cantrell, a former City Council member who took office in May 2018. Homicides in New Orleans are down, but the city has continued to struggle with issues of affordable housing and the creation of good-paying jobs in a tourism-oriented economy.

Peter Athas, a political blogger and columnist for The Bayou Brief, an online news site, has accused Cantrell of clumsily handling the disaster and aligning herself too closely with the developer.

But, Tidwell said, “The only question before the mayor and her public safety team is how any proposed demolition could potentially impact public safety.”

A few days ago, the Krewe of Zulu and the Krewe of Endymion, which put on two of the most popular Mardi Gras parades, announced route changes to avoid the closed-off downtown section of Canal Street where the half-destroyed building stands.

In a Facebook post, organizers of a protest march scheduled for Friday afternoon said they were targeting City Hall “in protest of the refusal to hold the builders accountable for the deaths, injuries, and unsafe work conditions they created!”

Erica Brown, 34, said Wednesday that she would avoid the ominous area beneath the building until it comes down. “It does something to me,” she said. “It’s disruptive to my spirit.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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