Services were held this week at Bellevue Memorial Park in Ontario for a construction worker who died from injuries suffered in a 12-foot fall at a job site of a controversial hillside home under construction in Laguna Beach.
Apolinar Fermin Bercenas, 60, of Pomona, was a 27-year employee of Decco Construction, a Fullerton framing contractor, said company president David Eminhizer, who glimpsed Fermin’s fall at 694 Diamond St.
Eminhizer said he was on his hands and knees alongside a foreman laying lines and taking measurements for walls on the same second floor where Fermin was working when his attention was drawn by a distinctive sound from jostling of nail and tool bags workers wear around their waists.
“I heard Pollo’s bags rattling and then I saw him flying backwards,” said Eminhizer, who observed something odd in the way Fermin fell, as if he was doing a back dive. “Why wasn’t he fighting it,” Eminhizer said he later asked himself, speculating that Fermin had suffered a heart attack or stroke. “I don’t think the ladder was the cause.”
Regulations permit framers to scale ladders up to 15 feet without fall protection, such as scaffolding or railing, said Eminhizer. While Fermin was overweight, he had not any other on-the-job health trouble, said his boss, who met the worker’s wife and one of his three children at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo last week. “He was a pro; he was slow, but methodical. I’d never seen him fall from a ladder.”
Cal-OSHA, which opened an inquiry into the accident, sent inspectors to the job site to interview witnesses on Friday, June 9, two days after the accident, said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations. Investigators will seek records from the coroner as well as the employer’s safety plan and training procedures, Melton said. The inquiry is likely to take up to six months and could result in fines if violations are discovered, he said.
An external autopsy of Fermin’s body determined that trauma from the fall caused his death. No examination of his medical condition was conducted and toxicology results are not expected before August, said Supervising Deputy Coroner Victoria Reichardt.
If an imminent hazard existed at the job site, inspectors would halt work immediately, but no restrictions were imposed, Melton said.
The property is being developed by owners Michelle and Kyle Goerlitz, the owner and president, respectively, of Gary Bale Redi Mix. The Irvine company deploys a fleet of 30 distinctively painted rigs with red flames to supply construction sites with concrete. Goerlitz did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
A huge amount of their own product was poured for their 3,400 square foot home. It is supported by 56 caissons, some sunk as deep as 43 feet, into a slope with a 62 percent grade that supports a multi-level home with a pool and deck, city records show. The project underwent eight contentious hearings, including protests from eight residents during the very first concept review in December 2004. At least three residents, Matt Lawson, Kurt R. Kress and Tom Stewart, continued to press their opposition with formal appeals in April 2015 that protested the home’s design inconsistencies that they contend violated requirements in the city’s specific plan for the area, such as minimizing grading and lack of screening.
Since construction began last March, some neighbors have also filed complaints about the Goerlitz home for lack of compliance with some construction policies, but none raised safety concerns, community development director Greg Pfost said this week. “A lot of the lots remaining are the lots that are very tricky,” he said.
Fermin was airlifted from the construction site by helicopter and arrived at the hospital about 70 minutes after dispatchers received the call, according to the call log. Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse described the site as a “complex technical rescue,” that involved 10 of 13 on-duty firefighters, a helicopter and battalion chief from the Orange County Fire Authority.
“Our goal is outstanding patient care. Carrying this patient up the make-shift stairs, or setting up a rope rescue system, could have caused further injury and even taken more time,” LaTendresse said.
Eminhizer and the job’s general contractor, local Ken McMurray, said the job site’s lack of a formal access stairway for use by workers is not atypical of hillside construction. Internal stairs that workers use are built after the walls are framed, and external stairs added when the house is finished, said Eminhizer, who established Decco in 1990.
“Everyone is very rattled,” said McMurray. He obtained his contractor’s license in 1983 and it is free of disciplinary actions, confirmed the Contractors State License Board. “None of us involved have ever experienced anything like this.”
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