A heavy equipment operator was killed Tuesday in an industrial accident as workers demolished a former shampoo factory in downtown St. Paul to make way for the new Lowertown Ballpark.
Johnny Valek, 61, of Plymouth, Minn., was using a backhoe to demolish an abandoned factory that stands on the ballpark site when a 30-foot slab of concrete collapsed on top of him, St. Paul Fire Marshall Steve Zaccard said.
The accident happened shortly after 8 a.m. at the former Diamond Products building near the St. Paul Farmers' Market.
An advanced tactical rescue team determined that Valek could not be rescued and had died shortly after arriving on the scene. They faced difficult conditions as they worked, and needed more than four hours to uncover Valek's body, Zaccard said.
"It's a demolitions site. That terrain is really rugged," Zaccard said."You're walking on chunks of concrete like walking through stones in a pond. Lots of rebar sticking up there, so it's a very treacherous work site, and we can't get our apparatus closer than about 300 feet."
Members of Valek's family described him as a beloved father, brother,relative and friend whose devotion will be missed. In a prepared statement,they thanked the emergency personnel, police and firefighters who arrived to help him. "John was a truly loving father who was preparing for retirement after more than 25 years of deconstruction experience, specializing in building demolition," they said. "He was considered an expert in his field and was highly respected by his peers. While he looked forward to retirement, those feelings paled in comparison to the excitement he held for his daughter's upcoming wedding."
Police spokesman Paul Paulos said the accident happened inside the structure. The top story had been taken off and there was equipment stationed on both of the remaining levels of the site after the accident.
Valek worked for Rachel Contracting, based in St. Michael. Minneapolis-based Ryan companies hired Rachel as a subcontractor on the $63-million dollar ballpark. Both companies have clean safety records from the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the last five years. OSHA officials say they are investigating the accident.
The company, which was founded in 2006, has a clean safety record from the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which inspected the company in 2010 but issued no citations.
In April, the Minnesota Laborers Employers Cooperation & Education Trust recognized Rachel Contracting as one of 37 "safety driven" union contractors.
"It is unfortunately a fact of life of the construction industry that there are risks," St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman said at a briefing shortly after the accident.
"Men and women risk their lives on a daily basis to build our community," he added. "This is a tragic example of the risks that those individuals undertake."
Workers are demolishing the 835,000 square foot building to make room for the new 7,000-seat ballpark being built for the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball team.
Ryan Cos., which is building the ballpark, is reaching out to the family of the dead worker, and offering support to the family and the other workers at the site, spokesman Collin Barr said.
"Our company takes safety very, very seriously," Barr said. "We take an event like this very seriously."
Demolition at the Lowertown site has been going on for months as workers stripped out equipment and hazardous materials out of the massive three-floor factory building. Manufacturing operations ceased there in 2005.
The project has been the subject of vocal neighborhood opposition, from critics who wanted to preserve the building and who objected to the removal of a parking lot on the north end of the site.
The stadium also suffered a financial setback earlier this summer, when testing found a large amount of underground pollution, ballooning the project's cost from $54 to $63 million.
The state, the city of St. Paul and the Saints are all sharing in the cost of building the new facility.
Construction was supposed to have started as early as this month. Financing and contracting delays have pushed the formal start to April 2014.
The ballpark is scheduled to open in 2015.
MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert contributed to this story.