Collapse within Ypsilanti’s Thompson Block leaves one worker dead

Just a little more than an hour after Ypsilanti landlord turned real estate developer Stewart Beal took to Facebook to announce that demolition on the Thompson Block’s first floor had begun, word spread by way of social media that one of Beal’s workers had lost his life as the result of a floor collapse.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 1.45.22 PM

While I’d like to think that we could just come together as a community and mourn this man’s passing, and allow the inevitable investigation to run its course before attempting to cast blame, it looks as though the conversation online is already turning toward Beal’s possible culpability. Given the controversy that has swirled around the redevelopment of the old Civil War barrack since it was set on fire by a squatter in the early fall of 2009, it’s not that surprising. Rightly or wrongly, many in this community feel as though Beal, who is one of the City’s largest property owners, has been less than forthcoming in his dealings with the City concerning the development of the block, and not terribly proactive with regard to safety.

As for my personal take on Beal’s stewardship of the Thompson block, I’m torn. While I’ve found his foot dragging when it comes to meeting the commitments he’d made with the City to be frustrating, I haven’t really held it against him, as I know that this has been an incredibly difficult time to raise money for construction projects in places other than Ann Arbor. The truth is, this was a very risky project to undertake, and Stewart accepted it when others had passed. And I think, for that reason, I’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as he’s tried everything in his power to keep the project moving forward. With that said, though, I do think that serious mistakes have been made. For instance, I hold Beal responsible for leaving this valuable historic asset, which was practically given to him by the City, relatively unsecured, allowing squatters to move in and ultimately set fire to it. Everything that has happened since, I think, can be traced back to that lapse on his part, and I believe he’s deserving of criticism for that. But that doesn’t, of course, mean that he was in any way culpable for what happened today.

As for the building itself, I’ve never been convinced that it was structurally sound enough to be redeveloped, regardless of who was doing the job… Here, by way of background, is a clip from a post I’d written shortly after the 2009 fire about the condition of the building.

I had occasion to talk with a gentleman the other day who is in the construction business, and he indicated to me that saving the Thompson block at this point would be near impossible. He said that it was likely that the mortar holding the bricks in place, which was already beginning to fail in sections, was further weakened by the extreme heat of the fire. In his professional opinion, the only way to move forward at this point would be to number the bricks, take down the walls, and then build them back again with new mortar, perhaps reversing them in the process, so that the sides previously facing in, faced out. He, however, acknowledged that doing so would almost certainly make the project ineligible for historic building grants and incentives such as those which had been under consideration prior to the fire. So, I’m not sure where this leaves us as a community. What I do know, however, is that the structure, as it now stands, isn’t likely to stand for long…

My hope, for all involved, is that today’s tragedy, while terrible, was more a horrible workplace accident than it was the result of cutting corners and ignoring accepted safety protocols. If it turns out that this man’s death was the result of the latter, I’ll be the first to join the chorus of those demanding justice. For now, though, I really don’t see what can be gained by turning this into an attack on Beal… I’ll be the first to admit that things don’t look good, but I don’t see how anything can be gained from comments, like the ones I’ve seen online this afternoon, demanding that he be driven from town. What we should focus on right now, in my opinion, is securing the building so that no one else is injured, cooperating with investigators, and providing assistance to the family of the man who who died this morning. [If anyone knows about fundraising efforts for this man’s family, please let me know and I will add a link here.]

Lastly, here’s a photo taken this afternoon by Robert Vogt, who was eating across the street at Sidetrack when the collapse took place.

THompsonBlock

update: We now know more about the incident. The following is from MLive.

…The man was working on renovations at Thompson Block — at 400 N. River St. — that have been ongoing since January. Ypsilanti Fire Department Capt. Dan Cain said a crew of four men were in the basement of the building clearing room for an excavator to be brought down when the first floor collapsed.

Three others who were in the basement were uninjured in the collapse, but the deceased man was trapped underneath the floor and a pile of wood sitting on the first floor, as well. The three men tried to remove some of the flooring on top of the man, but had to be careful not to remove a piece and bring more of the rubble down on them.
Cain said the man was communicating with his co-workers shortly after the floor collapsed, but eventually stopped responding.

Emergency crews were called to the scene at about 11:45 a.m. and had the man out of the rubble about 20 minutes later…

update: A GoFundMe.com page has been established to raise money for the family of the deceased.

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32 Comments

  1. facebook stalker
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Councilman Brian Robb on the history of the Thompson block:

    Wikis and MLive stories are nice and fuzzy, but the real story is in the court documents and the engineering reports.

    Start with the 2003 condition survey:
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20030519…

    Then dig into some court documents:
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20090612-Kircher…
    http://www.east-cross.com/images/20061122-KircherAppeal.pdf

    Finally, finish up with some post-fire documents:
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20091123…
    http://www.east-cross.com/images/400N-River-permit.pdf
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20110510…
    http://www.east-cross.com/images/20100804-APPENDIX-A.pdf
    http://www.east-cross.com/images/20100804-400NRiverRPT.pdf
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20100406…
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20110426-LetterToMediator…
    http://www.east-cross.com/images/Consent-Agreement.pdf
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20110511-ThompsonReviewMemo…
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20110511…
    http://www.east-cross.com/…/20130715…

    And Kircher isn’t in jail. Don’t believe things you read on the internet — unless it’s in PDF format.

  2. Barry LaRue
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Mark, your comments are well balanced. It’s true that even before Beal took over receivership that the building was compromised. Failure to support the roof in the area of a penthouse above the freight elevator allowed rainwater to cascade into the structure 2 or 3 years prior to Mr. Beal assuming control. It’s ironic that Dave Kircher, while no stellar property owner, at least kept the rain out while Fantassee Lighting leased much of the building. Frankly, the building would still be semi-salvagable if Kircher still owned it (if you assume he could have taken care of it while he was in prison!).

  3. Posted May 11, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Barry. It’s no easy thing to come across as balanced on something like this.

    Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for the results of the investigation.

  4. Kjc
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m not afraid of someone getting blamed. I’m afraid of not enough blame going around. All the “haters” who took one look at the thing all these years and thought “not safe” weren’t geniuses after all. They just had better instincts than the people who handed out permits and okayed demo.. And now someone has died for their poor judgment. Makes me sick.

  5. Dan Blakeney
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Please let us know how to contribute to the family when information comes available. Thanks Mark.

  6. Posted May 11, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know enough about the construction business to weigh in knowledgeably, so I should refrain from saying anything, but one does wonder how it is that you can demolish the first floor while people are working below….. And this is why I’m looking forward to the report from the investigators, who I am sure will consult with structural engineers.

  7. Ben
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I do work in the construction business. I’m a project manager for a firm in Ann Arbor. The number of blatant OSHA violations that were visible from the outside of the building certainly make me think this accident was absolutely the result of cutting corners and ignoring accepted safety protocols.

    There is no way I would ever let any of my crew work in the conditions the Beal crew was working in. If OSHA caught us the fines would be astronomical.

  8. Barry LaRue
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    While I do have a Residential Builders License, I don’t claim to be a structural engineer. The one thing I do know is that just because a municipality issues a permit to do certain work doesn’t put the onus on them for the contractor following safe practices and using good judgement. If a builder wants to stay in business and retain the ability to get a liability policy and Workman’s Comp you would assume that they would try fairly hard to be as safe as possible on the job site. There are very few workplace safety inspectors in the state and that, no doubt, can contribute to a more lax attitude on the part of some contractors. This is just a general observation, as I am not specifically familiar with the practices inside the Thompson Building. I drive by it multiple time a day, but that hardly gives me much of a view inside!

  9. Posted May 11, 2015 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I have seen multiple people asking where they can go to contribute to the family. I was wondering the same thing and hadn’t seen anything, so I set up a gofundme campaign. Here if the link for anybody who would like to contribute. gofundme.com/uag83r4 All proceeds will go to the family.

  10. Thom Elliott
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I guess I am just not ‘balanced’ enough to give this ‘seemingly’ callous real estate baron a pass on this overtly structurally deficient, derelict building which endangers the entire Depot Town and brings down property values/keeps out investment etc. Anyone who watched that building burn could see it was a total loss, and out of concern for historical building grants etc., it sat and rotted… till it killed someone. I am sorry if my ‘typical’ comments today weren’t that helpful, but no one cares what mentally ill commie philosophers say anyhow.

  11. Thom Elliott
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Tim C for your proactive and charitable endeavors.

  12. Elize Jekabson
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I just read a comment on mlive from a family member, saying the employer hasn’t contacted the victims wife, even with condolences. I’m sure there’s a lot going on internally with beal co. at this time , but there’s always time for condolences.

  13. rainman
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    If Beal wasn’t on MIOSHAs radar as he should have been, he certainly is now. The fines for worker deaths are huge. In addition to the lawsuits that will follow. He should be in jail. And I mean that. He’s an idiot.

  14. Laura Bien
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to Tim C for setting up the gofundme for the family.

  15. Kjc
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Beal is advertising a new rental on Twitter, his first utterance since the tragedy. Get to that family thing later. No money in it.

  16. Glen S.
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    My condolences to this man and his family.

    This project is an embarrassment to the neighborh00d, and to Ypsilanti, and should have been stopped a long time ago.

  17. 734
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    How long until we see the Beal properties in Ypsilanti going up for sale?

  18. Anonymous
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    From the M-Live.

    James Ryckman 14 hours ago
    His name was Jeremy (Jake) Wayne Burd, And he was the brother I never had. He is survived by this wife Jesscica Burd and his 5 children. and was going to be a grandpa in the next 5 months. His grandchild father was on there working with him, when this happened, and from what we are told he pushed 2 of the workers out of the way before the floor collapased. His employer still has not contacted the family, and I know this becuase I was at the hospital saying good by to the only brother I ever had. 3 of his youngest children he adopted, and he has given them a life they never knew. He was a terrific father who did everything for his children.

  19. Thom Elliott
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Well that is just grotesquely wretched. Capitalism claims another family in the relentless pursuit of surplus value.

  20. Posted May 12, 2015 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I just got off the phone with the deceased’s sister in law, who more or less said the same things that his brother James Ryckman had said. Jake Burd was going to turn 40 this year, and one of the workers he pushed out of the way was the father of his soon to be grandchild. He grew up in Ypsi and he and his wife were just beginning a farm in Milan. They don’t have funeral arrangements or anything planned yet and are working to come together to support the family. I have contact information for the family if anybody has anything they would like to contribute outside of the gofundme campaign, they can feel free to contact me directly at tcarp2002@gmail.com

  21. Steve Pickard
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    You know what really irks me about the Thompson Block? It isn’t Beal’s delays, the footdragging, or the possible safety lapses…it’s Beal’s obvious showmanship and PR stunts in the media…The latest is, of course, the grand annoucments in MLIVE about the possible tenants signing non-binding agreements…we all know them.. Expresso Royale, Zingerman’s, the various breweries…that come, always, with staged photomontages of workers laying a brick or two, all clad in Beal Construction helmets, all milling around some ribbons being cut. I was living on Maple when the latest…and supposedly “final stage”…renovations were set to begin in January, and that Beal Construction cart that was put out front was suspiciously absent of any footprints in the snow, with the door iced over. That wouldn’t be a big deal, as doing construction in the winter is never a prime time, except for Beal piping in on Mlive about the gas going in, or electricity being turned on in the bulding, and Zingerman’s moving in any minute, possibly by Fall 2015.

  22. Posted May 12, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I met a guy who had been banned from a particular county in Ohio following an incident involving heroin, an underage girl, and staggering around a shopping mall in a visible state. The judge banned him from the entire county. For several years. There is, one might hope, some tool in Michigan to follow negligent homicide charges with such a ban, in an instance such as this.

  23. Lynne
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    This whole thing is just so tragic. I love the Thomson Block but not so much that I would want people to die saving it.

  24. Anonymous
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    What liability does the city have for signing off on Beal’s plans and providing permits?

  25. Posted May 12, 2015 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Cityfarm.

  26. Steve Pickard
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Regarding liability…I’ve wondered the same thing, and doubt we’ve seen the last…or even the beginning…of the legal forays regarding culpability, liability, coverage, etc. The sad part (well, the second saddest part after the fact that someone lost their life in this whole debacle…) is that all of that will no doubt stretch out that relic’s obstinate residency at the corner of River St. and Cross. I still think that spot should just be a public park, with a plaque or two documenting history. Recently i was up at MSU, and they had torn down Morrill Hall as structurally unsound after much debate (it was about as old as Thompson…) and they’d installed a nice plaza, park, and informational booths. Heck, put a gazebo or public bandshell there at Thompson and it would raise the whole area and look nice.

  27. Mark Boone
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m not an expert in interpreting code laws but based on much of this criteria (From the city’s web site) I’d think that building should’ve been gone long ago. I don’t understand how Mr Beal got so many extensions and second chances. http://cityofypsilanti.com/…/VacantDangerousBuildings
    Also-Having been the “once upon a time” owner of a historic district home for 20 years in Ypsilanti, I’m aware the City also has the ability to sue historical property owners for “Demolition by Neglect”. I’ve marveled at how long this shell was left to stand with no roof and other questionable looking supports. I love free enterprise and entrepreneurs. I love Ypsilanti and its old buildings. I do not love death and now somebody has paid the price with their life for what seemed to be an underfunded, often delayed and unsafe endeavor.

  28. Bill Lansky
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    One can only hope that the poor soul’s family gets hooked up with Geoffry Fieger and they sue Stewart, his father, and legal representation (mommy dearest) for every last cent. He’s run amok with the trust fund for far too long. There is something to be said for karma, but I never dreamed or wished that it would come at the cost of a worker’s life.

    But I’m sure Go Beal will spring for a really, really nice floral arrangement at the funeral. And nothing else.

  29. Bob
    Posted May 13, 2015 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    This guy lived in the neighborhood where my brothers family lives. It’s a sad story. Beal always struck me as a real creep, in my limited encounters with him. It seems to me the blame extends slightly beyond him though. Isn’t everyone who fought to preserve that disaster a little bit culpable? A slightly interesting history isn’t everything. The hysterical society is over the top, always has been. Sometimes you gotta just let shit go.

  30. Ben
    Posted May 14, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Mark,

    I know this article is super pro-Beal, but can you comment on how Beal has recently hired unlicensed builders to do work on the Thompson block?

    I mean, when I hire a sub to work on one of my projects, I check their license and insurance before they start work. That’s pretty standard practice in the construction industry. Checking a license literally takes less than a minute.

    Can you find out why Beal isn’t doing this? Maybe if he isn’t doing basic things like checking for a builders license before he hires a company, he isn’t making sure a work-site is safe before he sends his own workers in there.

  31. Posted May 14, 2015 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    It’s funny that you read this piece as “super pro-Beal.” Others have written to me saying that it had too negative of a slant. I guess that means I accomplished some semblance of balance, which I guess is good.

    The truth is, I have no idea what laws, if any, were broken on the worksite. I was just suggesting that we wait until a report is issued before we run Beal out of town on a rail. I don’t think that makes me “super pro-Beal.” I just think we should wait for the report from the investigators before passing judgement.

  32. Frosted Flakes
    Posted May 15, 2015 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Incredibly sad that this man died.

    I thought Mark’s report was very unbiased, Ben.

    If this tragedy is the result of negligence or cutting corners, then Beal and the related managers should be held responsible. We will find out after it is investigated. Until then, sincerest condolences to the family. It is a very sad story.

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