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Collapse at St. Paul Lowertown ballpark site kills veteran worker

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John Valek, 61 John Valek, 61
Police secure a 'treacherous' collapse site at the former Gillette Building in St. Paul. Photo by Stephanie Gailhard / FOX 9 News. Police secure a 'treacherous' collapse site at the former Gillette Building in St. Paul. Photo by Stephanie Gailhard / FOX 9 News.
Demolition works stops after a partial collapse and death of a crane operator at the former GIllette Building in downtown St. Paul Demolition works stops after a partial collapse and death of a crane operator at the former GIllette Building in downtown St. Paul
Future St. Paul Saints ballpark site Future St. Paul Saints ballpark site
ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) -

A partial building collapse at the demolition site of the future Lowertown Ballpark in downtown St. Paul claimed the life of one worker Tuesday morning.

St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said part of the concrete building collapsed onto the cab of a backhoe, instantly killing the worker inside.

"There was no rescue to be made," Zaccard said. "Almost immediately, it became a recovery operation."

Ryan Companies identified the victim as Johnny Valek, a heavy equipment operator for Rachel Contracting, a subcontractor of Ryan Companies.

The collapse happened at about 8 a.m. at the former Diamond Products/Gillette building at East 5th Street and Broadway Avenue, which is being demolished to clear the site for the new St. Paul Saints ballpark.

WORK STOPPED, INVESTIGATION STARTED

All work at the Lowertown demolition site has stopped and a full investigation has been launched.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigators arrived at the demolition site Tuesday morning and began working while firefighters spent hours meticulously removing the rubble to extricate Valek's body.

Valek's brother told FOX 9 that the 61-year-old worker was a Twin Cities construction veteran who was one year away from retirement.

"He was one of the greatest guys," Randy Valek said. "Everybody liked him. Nobody said a bad word. He was a hard worker."

Randy Valek said his brother loved demolition and their family is "really shook up" by the sudden loss.

"He really liked his job," he said. "He liked tearing stuff down. That was kind of his game. He really liked doing that."

Yet although he loved his work, Randy Valek said his brother had recently grown concerned about his assignment at the Lowertown site, even going so far as to take cell phone video of portions of the demolition.

"It was scary. He showed us the video and said, 'Look at this. You gotta see this,'" Randy Valek recalled. "He was backing up the excavator when the whole thing came down."

DANGEROUS JOB

At a 10:30 a.m. press conference, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said it is a "fact of life" that there are risks like this in the construction industry.

"My heart goes out to the family of the worker who was tragically killed during demolition of the Gillette Building in Lowertown earlier today," Coleman said. "Construction work can be a dangerous job, and so today I am thankful to all the men and women in construction trades who day in and day out work to make our community a better place."

Rachel Contracting, based out of St. Michael, Minn., was hired by Ryan Companies to complete demolition of the Diamond/Gillette building. The company has conducted several major demolition projects in and around the metro.

"Our company takes safety very, very seriously," Collin Bar, spokesman for Ryan Companies, said. "We have one of the strongest safety records in the industry."

An OSHA spokesperson told FOX 9 News a routine inspection of the company did not yield any citations.

The Lowertown Ballpark is scheduled to open in spring 2015.

STATEMENT FROM THE VALEK FAMILY

We want to thank everyone for their thoughts, support and prayers today, as we are forced to say goodbye far too soon to John, a beloved father, brother, relative and friend.

We specifically want to express our deepest gratitude to all of the emergency responders, including the police and firefighters, who have treated us with such kindness and professionalism.

We want to express our deepest sympathies to John's coworkers, with whom he worked for years. We know he thought of you not only as colleagues, but rather as friends. Please be safe as you continue John's work.

Like everyone else, we want to know more about the event that stole him from us. However, we believe it is better at this time to focus on honoring his legacy, holding each other up as we anxiously await a clearer picture of what took place.

So for now, we work to remember John for the person that touched all of us.

John was a truly loving father who was preparing for retirement after more than 25 years of deconstruction experience, specializing in building demolition. 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.

It is that devotion that we will miss most.

While we appreciate that people may want us to speak further about John and our memories of him, we are trying as much as is humanly possible to work our way through our grief. So while there may be a time for that at a much later date, we will let this statement serve as our public comment and expect that it will serve as a means to satisfy inquiries on such a tragic day.

Doing this will best help us honor our beloved father, brother, relative and friend.

STATEMENT FROM RYAN COMPANIES

"At approximately 8:00 a.m. today, an accident occurred at the site of the Lowertown Ballpark project in Saint Paul.  As heavy equipment operators were demolishing a building, a portion of the concrete structure supporting the building fell onto the cab of one of the backhoes involved in the demolition work.

This accident resulted in the death of Johnny Valek, a heavy equipment operator for Rachel Contracting, a subcontractor of Ryan Companies.

All of us at Ryan are deeply saddened, and our sympathies go out to family members and colleagues. We're also working with the family and Johnny's co-workers to offer grief counseling and support.

An investigation into the cause of the accident is well underway, and Ryan is cooperating fully with authorities. Ryan has one of the best construction safety records in the industry, and we take incidents like this very seriously.

The City of Saint Paul and OSHA have turned control of the site back to Ryan Companies."

ST. PAUL SAINTS STATEMENT

"There is profound sadness in the St. Paul Saints organization today after learning about the passing of a worker at the Lowertown site. At this time we want to send out our deepest sympathies to the family who lost a loved one in this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and our entire community on this heartbreaking day."

GOVERNOR MARK DAYTON STATEMENT

"I was deeply saddened by this morning's tragic accident in St. Paul. All Minnesotans share my grief for John Valek's loss, and we extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and co-workers."

GILLETTE BUILDING DEMOLITION SCHEDULE

July 18 to 23: Demolish 40-foot exterior wall on the east side of the building and 40 feet of south wall

July 24 to Aug. 26: Demolish the remaining 690 feet of the exterior wall on the south side of the building.

Aug. 15 to Sept. 17: Demolish the first 12 feet of structural from the light rail operations and maintenance facility wall to the north and 730 feet from east to west

Aug. 28 to Sept. 3: Demolish 40 ft. exterior wall on the west side of the building

Sept. 10 to Sept. 25: Demolish the first third of remaining building, from east to west

Sept. 25 to Oct. 10: Demolish the middle third of remaining building, from east to west

Oct. 10 to Oct. 25: Demolish the remaining third of the building, from east to west

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