The last day of Menes Danielís life ...

Daniel would go to church with almost anyone who invited him, and collected Bibles, Solange recalls. He also kept girlfriends, Nestan says. "I used to call them Auntie so they'd give me berets," the 24-year-old remembers.

8:15 a.m.

Toribio Acevedo, age 36, planned to return to Mexico and 
build a house for his girlfriend and the nine-month-old 
daughter he had seen only in photos
Toribio Acevedo, age 36, planned to return to Mexico and build a house for his girlfriend and the nine-month-old daughter he had seen only in photos

Daniel's foreman wants him to stop his concrete patchwork on the 25th floor, walk down to the 21st floor, and then take the buck hoist to the ground. Get some water for the crew, the foreman says. Daniel refuses, so the foreman tells him to take the trip without coming back. Go home, he says.

As Daniel approaches the administrative trailer to sign out for the day, another Southland foreman spots him and asks him to help out with a job on the 26th floor. They need extra hands with one of the last concrete pours on the roof. So Daniel goes up.

Hearing of his employee's new assignment, the foreman on the 25th floor is livid, complaining his authority has been undercut. Daniel isn't supposed to be on the 26th floor, he yells. He isn't supposed to be on the site, period. In protest, the foreman walks off the job. As he approaches the gate, he hears a thudding crash from up high, and swivels around to face the building's west side.

"When you work construction, anything can happen," Daniel's foreman, who withheld his name, would say later. "Nothing you can do. We don't got a choice, man. You got to make a living."

In 2003 Florida's legislature further emasculated the state's weak workers' compensation law. The new law restricted attorneys to $150 per hour in fees or $1500 per accident, and raised considerably the burden-of-proof bar. To sue successfully for workers' comp, an attorney must prove not only negligence but also intent to harm the employee or a foreknowledge of likely injury or death.

"You have even less incentive for a contractor to be concerned about safety, because they know they can't be sued," says Ramon Malca, a Miami labor attorney and chairman of the state bar association's workers' comp section. "People are falling off buildings like crazy."

While on-the-job injuries have decreased only slightly in recent years, workers' compensation payouts have decreased dramatically in Florida, according to the state's Department of Financial Services. In 2002 workers in Florida collected more than $1.7 billion in workers' compensation. By 2004 the amount had dropped by more than half, to about $500 million.

From a purely economic perspective, avoiding lawsuits and saving on workers' comp payouts aren't reason enough to overlook safety, says John Siegle, executive director of the Construction Association of South Florida. "Nothing gets built without people. You can't afford to have someone go home at night and not come back the next day," Siegle says. "It is different than the hospitality industry, where if someone has an accident, they cut their finger. People die."

In a seemingly inexhaustible labor pool of undocumented workers, the system encourages corner-cutting contractors to pay illegal immigrants under-the-table, Malca says. That way they can claim a smaller payroll and pay less in workers' comp premiums. If an undocumented worker gets hurt, some contractors instruct them to tell doctors they were injured at home or somewhere other than the work site, Malca says, saving fines and medical costs for the employer. "It is a calculated risk."

Further complicating the case for Florida's legions of undocumented immigrant laborers, a social security number is required to collect workers' comp, and many lawyers would rather avoid the logistical headaches — reticent witnesses, language barriers, deportation fears — involved in such cases. "We've been told point-blank by defense attorneys that the value of undocumented workers' lives is less than citizens'," says attorney and Florida ACLU board member John De Leon.

9:30 a.m.

This is it, the 26th-floor penthouse, a sprawling pad with 270-degree water views. Someone had agreed to pay more than $11 million for it. For now it belongs to Daniel and the other workers on the job — Edny Guirand, Toribio Acevedo, and Cornelio Ruiz. Because the buck hoist goes only to the 21st floor, they had walked up the last five floors in a stuffy, dark stairwell. Out here on the deck, wispy clouds float above the unfinished roof, and a stiff, salty breeze pours in through the massive window openings.

As workers above spread concrete using a hydraulic pump-driven hose, Guirand, Acevedo, Ruiz, and Daniel monitor the pour. Using a laser balance, they keep an eye on the wood and steel form as it fills with concrete, making sure the liquid stone is evenly spread.

"That is a no-no," John Siegle of the Construction Association of South Florida says of standing directly under a concrete pour. "That is just suicidal."

Toribio Acevedo, quiet and diligent, arrived from Queretaro, Mexico, almost ten years earlier. The 36-year-old had worked landscaping and construction jobs in Alabama, Georgia, and now Florida. He lived with friends in Pompano Beach but told anyone who asked that he'd return home as soon as he had the money to build a house for his girlfriend Virginia and their daughter Mariangeles, a wide-eyed nine-month-old he had yet to meet. Some weekends he called his older brother, Eduardo, back home. They talked about Toribio's dream house in the mountains or reminisced about the childhood they shared.

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