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One dead, three injured in retaining wall collapse

A 10-foot retaining wall under repair collapsed on Wednesday morning, killing one person and injuring three others, triggering an enormous emergency response from EMTs, firefighters and law officers and shutting down Spartanburg Highway in both directions for more than four hours.

Construction workers were pouring concrete at the base of wall in the parking lot at Hajoca Corp. at 1027 Spartanburg Highway when the wall collapsed around 9:30 a.m. Upon arrival, emergency responders assessed the scene and began rescue and recovery efforts. City spokeswoman Allison Justus said in an email that emergency personnel confirmed one fatality when they arrived. On Wednesday the city had not released the names of man who was killed and the others who were injured, pending notification of their family.

When firefighters arrived, one of the five men on the construction crew told the responders that four coworkers were trapped in the wall collapse, said Hendersonsonville Fire Chief James Miller.

"The first person that we had rapid access to" was rescued and transported by ambulance to Pardee Hospital and later transferred to the trauma unit at Mission Hospital. "The second patient was a critical trauma patient" who was also hospitalized. The emergency response team requested two helicopters. Mission's MAMA chopper was grounded by bad weather. Two others came from Greenville Regional Hospital and Spartanburg Region 1. The third patient was rescued 30 to 45 minutes later and airlifted by the Spartanburg air ambulance. The last one was deceased under the debris. "We spent numerous hours trying to lift the wall and get him out," Miller said. "We understood  there was no possible survival so we worked on the other patients and waited until they were all removed" before recovering the body of the deceased worker.

The emergency activated the unified command, an organized and drilled response that brings responders from all over, including Buncombe County's emergency task force, the city of Hendersonville water and sewer department, the county Rescue Squad, numerous fire & rescue departments and others. City police officers watched security camera footage to make sure there were no more than five victims at the scene, Miller said.

The workers were employed by a contractor, not by Hajoca. "They were pouring concrete along the foundation between the asphalt and the wall," Miller said. "Law enforcement will continue to look into that further." The N.C. Department of Labor and OSHA were on the scene and had already opened an investigation, which is required in a workplace death.

The wall, 10 to 12 feet tall and 100 to 150 feet long, "basically fell over," Miller said. "There didn't appear to be any tiebacks of any sort. ... It appeared they were all working in one area when the wall came down. We were told they were working in the trench area (pouring concrete) just at the base of the wall between the asphalt parking lot and the block wall."

In a post-accident debriefing, the fire department will "talk about what went well and what didn't go well so we can make improvements and get better and better," Miller said. "Obviously something this significant and tragic, we want to meet with our members and make sure that they're not dealing with the after effects of dealing with death and trauma. Unfortunately, when people are injured this significantly, they're screaming out and there's not a whole lot we can do when a wall's on top of them, so that's pretty traumatic for some of the individuals. We want to make sure they understand that they did everything they could and sometimes getting people out from a trapped environment takes time."

Although a remaining partial wall was shored up by the Rescue Squad, it's expected that the wall will be taken down so it poses no risk.

The wall, on the western edge side of the Hajoca property near the high bridge on Spartanburg Highway, had been damaged by heavy rains a couple of weeks ago, said Chris Cormier, the owner of Carolina Specialties construction company, who had driven to the scene to see what was going on. Cormier said he looked at the job to consider doing the repair but did not end up taking on the project.

"I don't know who got it," he said. "When I heard about (the collapse) I didn't realize they were building it back."

A woman who answered the phone at Hajoca said the company had no additional information.

"No, we're dealing with it," she said. "That's all I've got for you."

One of the oldest businesss in the North Carolina mountains, Hajoca Corp., founded in 1858, bills itself as the premier plumbing supply and kitchen and bath showroom in Western North Carolina. The name Hajoca comes from the last names of the original founders, Haines, Jones and Cadbury.

"We pride ourselves on three key business principles: Service, Integrity and Reliability. These very principles have served our people and our customers very well for over 155 years," the company said on its website.

Before noon investigators had already notified the county building permit office of the collapse and asked whether a contractor had pulled a building permit for the work.

"We are checking into that now," said Denisa Lauffer, who heads the permitting office. "They are checking to see if that project was permitted."

Later, County Attorney Russ Burrell confirmed that the county had not issued a building a permit, though work on a wall that size would require a building permit and an engineering plan.