The last day of Menes Danielís life ...

 6:15 a.m.

Creeping silently through the bedroom window, dawn shatters with a mechanical bleating. The alarm clock will not be ignored. It is Saturday, May 6, just another morning in Menes Daniel's ten-hour-a-day, six-day work week, or so Daniel thinks.

He can look forward to the rest Sunday will bring. His niece will have her Communion at Holy Family Catholic Church. Daniel might go fishing. He might cook something special — maybe fried chicken — for dinner. It's one shift away. For now, though, it's another wake-up-in-the-dark, put-on-black-jeans, and go-to-work day. Daniel, a little over five feet tall and not quite 145 pounds, with soft eyes and a round face, is used to heavy work. He has been doing concrete forming for about a year, just long enough to feel comfortable with the work. It isn't always easy to feel comfortable, though, ten, twenty, twenty-five stories up, the wind whipping around.

Menes Daniel, a 48-year-old concrete worker from Haiti, wasn’t supposed to be on the 26th floor at the time of the accident
Menes Daniel, a 48-year-old concrete worker from Haiti, wasn’t supposed to be on the 26th floor at the time of the accident

After breakfast, Daniel packs lunch in his plastic cooler. Outside the North Miami ranch house he shares with his 54-year-old sister Solange and five of her ten children, the rising sun is already vaporizing the last drops of dew on the lawn. Daniel and his sister, a powerfully built woman with a gentle, deep voice, have been inseparable best friends since childhood. He leaves her $150 for bills they had discussed the night before, and says goodbye. In his wallet he carries a couple of dollars, a Haitian 50-gourde bill, a few family photos, his driver's license, and an alien resident card.

7:00 a.m.

Daniel's brown Buick Century is still cool inside. He cranks up the engine and lets it idle for a moment before shifting into drive. The weatherman puts the temperature in the low seventies, says it will flirt with ninety by the afternoon. A handful of clouds litter the sky. Daniel has the radio set to 101.5 Lite FM — "Have a Lite day" — and lets the music fill the blank drive. The first song might have been "Fields of Gold" by Sting or "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney or maybe "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister.

About twenty minutes later, he pulls into the lot at Haulover Park. From here it is a short ride, an old yellow school bus ride, to the work site across the inlet. Some of the men doze, their white, green, yellow, and reddish brown hardhats clanging against the windows as the driver maneuvers into traffic. Over the bridge, One Bal Harbour Tower Estates, the 26-story condominium high-rise Daniel has been working on for the past year, casts a shadow across the bus as it pulls up to the sidewalk. The drone of water pumps and idling supply trucks is already constant around the site.

Weeks earlier, WCI Communities, the Bonita Springs-based developer behind One Bal Harbour, part of a complex that will include a luxury hotel, had thrown a Polynesian-theme topping-off party with an "island chic" dress code. Dozens of guests sipped cocktails and smoked hand-rolled cigars in the building's shadow. The highrise's 85 apartments and penthouses, ranging from 1900 to 8500 square feet and $1 million to $12 million, would be ready by December, invitees were told. There would be two ocean-front pools, a spa, a restaurant, 24-hour valet service. As a band played, hired dancers gyrated. Bal Harbour's mayor, city manager, and two of the village's four councilmen made the scene. The evening ended with a champagne toast and a shirtless fire juggler.

The music at Miami's real-estate party may not be playing with the same brio as it once did, but the dance floor is still crowded. Within the city limits alone (i.e., excluding Bal Harbour, Miami Beach, and other development-intensive areas) are 400 "large-scale" projects, mostly residential high-rises, underway or awaiting groundbreaking, according to the city's building department. In 2005 Miami's planning department reviewed 205 major development projects in various stages of planning or construction. Those projects — 53 of which were approved last year — are slated to create 62,828 new residential units, 2634 hotel rooms, 5.21 million square feet of office space, 4.79 million square feet of retail, and 115,971 parking spaces.

Feeding the frenzy is an army of construction workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. As of this past April, the construction industry in Miami-Dade employed 46,600 workers, or about one-tenth of the industry's state total, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average worker could expect to make about $15 an hour, while supervisors would bring home about $25 and helpers about $9.

Though Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials parachute in after a serious injury or death, there's little safety oversight otherwise. In 2002 the state legislature eliminated the Department of Labor and Employment Security, along with its compliance arm, to the cheers of industry lobbyists. Employees of that division were transferred to agencies such as the state's financial services department, where they spend their days collecting data. "There's no regulatory agency operating here other than OSHA," says Marsha Nims, manager of the department's occupational health and safety statistical program.

Daniel's employer, West Palm Beach-based Southland Forming, has been cited for six safety violations — including one death — in the past ten years by OSHA. A Southland representative who declined to give her name said she was barred from commenting. Phone calls to Boran Craig Barber Engel Construction (BCBE) of Naples — the primary contractor at One Bal Harbour — and to WCI Communities were not returned.

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