Deconstruction

The last day of Menes Danielís life ...


On a recent weekday at the One Bal Harbour site, an electrician's radio crackled with warnings about feds onsite. Inspectors had cited contractors for a large hole left exposed in a concrete floor deck and unsafe wiring, the electrician said. He complained the mistakes would cost him a bonus for the day. A BCBE foreman told day laborers to stop sweeping balconies enclosed with nailed-together wooden barriers. "Come inside for now," he said. "OSHA's down there."

In Florida a construction worker dies almost every other day of the work week on average, according to federal statistics from 2004, the most recent year for which they are available. That year the state's 115 on-the-job deaths accounted for nine percent of all construction fatalities nationwide. Though Florida's injury and illness rate among construction workers was about six percent lower than the national average in 2004, it had increased by six percent over the previous year, while the national rate had decreased by the same percentage.

One Bal Harbour, a 26-story luxury condominium and 
hotel complex at the mouth of Haulover Inlet, became a 
temporary tomb for three workers. The sold-out 
building's 85 condominium apartments went for $1 
million to $12 million each
One Bal Harbour, a 26-story luxury condominium and hotel complex at the mouth of Haulover Inlet, became a temporary tomb for three workers. The sold-out building's 85 condominium apartments went for $1 million to $12 million each
Thirty-four-year-old Edny Guirand, a practical joker who worked with Daniel, had been in the U.S. only two years
Thirty-four-year-old Edny Guirand, a practical joker who worked with Daniel, had been in the U.S. only two years

Minimizing danger is a relatively simple proposition: training, says Scott Schneider of the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, a branch of the Laborers' International Union of North America. Schneider's group has petitioned states nationwide, so far with little success, to mandate a ten-hour federal safety training course for all construction workers.


7:30 a.m.

As he waits for the gates to open, Daniel looks around at the dreadlocked Jamaican ironworkers, mustached good-old-boy electricians, and brown-skinned masons slumped against the promotional posters that cover the site's chainlink fence. Behind day laborers in red hardhats, a white-gloved hand serves up a silver platter of sushi and caviar. On one poster, a white couple almost as tall as the men who stand nearby stroll hand-in-hand on the beach. In another, a champagne bottle stands ready at the foot of a turned-down bed, the ocean visible beyond a wide window.

Soon the school buses have disgorged the last load of men. Some of them smoke cigarettes in silence while others drink coffee from lunch trucks and make small talk in the bridge's shade. There are the Hondurans who always sit on the rocks by the bend in the access road, and the Haitians who dangle their feet over the water, tossing bread to the sergeant major fish that attack in a blur of black and yellow. Painters from the Mexican desert, plumbers from Overtown, and others gather in their ethnic pods.

The food trucks begin closing up, and it's time to go to work. Daniel joins the stream of men through the gate and past the small mountains of fill dirt, towering stacks of cinder blocks, and bundles of steel I-beams and PVC pipes that clutter the site. He makes his way under the reinforcement rods that splay out from lower floors like stalactites gone haywire and toward one of the temporary work elevators, or buck hoists as they're called.

He's headed for the 25th floor, high above the swirling dust. There's some patch work that needs Daniel's attention, a matter of smoothing some imperfections, his foreman tells him. As he rides up, the buck hoist lurching occasionally, Daniel can make out multicolor beach umbrellas on the coastline far below. The Atlantic's turquoise waters are tantalizingly out of reach.

Inside the building, the air is still and the light is a murky blue-gray on the levels where newly installed windows remain covered in protective plastic. Hallways vibrate with power saws and drills. Specifications sketched on sheetrock walls share space with pencil doodlings. Across the wooden door leading from one floor to the buck hoist opening, someone has scrawled, "What floor are you really on?"

The morning is young when Daniel, usually agreeable and easygoing on the job, gets into a spat with his foreman.


Born in Port-de-Paix, Haiti, Daniel grew up by the water in Port-au-Prince, dreaming of life as a fisherman. In 1981, with daily existence in Haiti as brutal as ever under Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Daniel, then 23, decided to make a break. In the years that followed, he would return home occasionally, fathering a daughter, Bedline, now 24; and a son, Bedlin, now 17, with his common-law wife St. Rose Guerrier. With various restaurant, sales, and construction jobs in Miami, Daniel supported his family as well his sister Solange's children. He also held onto his childhood dream. For years he kept a worn-out old boat in the yard at Solange's house, working on it occasionally and fantasizing about becoming a deep-sea fisherman. Before Daniel gave up the dream and sold the unseaworthy craft, Solange's children would take cover in it during their games of hide and seek.

Daniel took occasional charter fishing trips to Bimini. He loved Key West and planned to trade his car in for a van better suited for carrying his fishing gear. Stoic and calm, he hated having his photograph taken and generally made an art of blending into the background, says niece Fafane Nestan. "He's like a cat. You won't know he's there."

Over the years, when time allowed, Daniel would show his nephews and nieces how to climb tall trees and how to plant yams, avocados, and mangoes in the back yard. Ton Ton — "uncle" in Kreyol — as they called him, played peacemaker between the kids and Solange, whose husband had died in a car accident. "He's like a second father for us," says niece Wilnite Daniel-Delince, who remembers Daniel mowing the lawn, painting the house, smiling as he went.

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