Johnny Valek had told his younger brother and his best friend that construction work at the site of the new Saints ballpark in downtown St. Paul was some of the toughest of his career.
On Tuesday morning, a year away from when he was planning to retire, Valek, 61, of Plymouth, was killed when a concrete portion of the two-story building that he was helping to demolish crashed down on the cab of his backhoe.
Workers had been clearing the site of the old Gillette/Diamond Products building, a former 650,000-square-foot factory near Broadway and 5th streets, to make way for the future ballpark.
Work on the project has been put on hold as the safety of the existing structure is examined.
“Men and women risk their lives on a daily basis to build our community,” Mayor Chris Coleman said during a news conference. “This is a tragic example of the risks that those individuals undertake.”
Authorities said the incident happened about 8 a.m. Tuesday when a 10- by 30-foot piece of the concrete structure that had been supporting the building suddenly fell onto Valek’s machine.
It took about five hours and the help of the St. Paul Fire Department’s advanced technical team to recover Valek’s body. Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said the demolition site’s rugged terrain was “treacherous” for rescuers.
Valek was an employee of Rachel Contracting of St. Michael, Minn., a subcontractor of Ryan Companies that was doing excavation work. Excavation began in July at the site and was slated to last four months.
“All of us at Ryan are deeply saddened, and our sympathies go out to family members and colleagues,” Collin Barr, president of the north-central region for general contractor Ryan, said in a statement.
At a news conference, Barr said his company took safety “very, very seriously.”
The victim’s brother Randy Valek, who is the president of his own construction company, knows firsthand the importance of safety on site. “You got to watch out any time you’re around any equipment,” he said.
Randy Valek, who spent much of Tuesday afternoon at the scene waiting for his brother’s body to be recovered, said Johnny Valek was a “great guy” who was looking forward to his daughter getting married.
Randy Valek said that his brother had more than 25 years of experience in construction but that even with all of his expertise, Johnny Valek had recently said the demolition at the Lowertown site was a “tough job.”
He had even taken a cellphone video to show what he did, Randy Valek said. He said the weight of the concrete and the thickness of the walls made the job difficult.
Friend Roger Shaughnessy, who was at the scene, said Johnny Valek had even said he was afraid of the building collapsing on him.
In a statement later Tuesday, Valek’s family said: “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.”
Harry Melander, president of the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council, also visited the worksite Tuesday. “It’s always a sad day when we lose one of our family members,” he said.
Investigators with Minnesota OSHA on Tuesday began reviewing factors that might have caused or contributed to the accident and whether state safety standards had been violated, spokesman James Honerman said.
In the past five years, Rachel Contracting was inspected once, in July 2010, and no citations were issued, Honerman said. Ryan has been inspected numerous times in the last five years, but OSHA records show that no safety violations were found.
Since 2008, Minnesota OSHA has investigated 23 workplace fatalities where the victim was crushed and 12 fatalities where the victim was struck. From 2008 to 2012, construction accidents accounted for 28 percent of workplace fatalities that Minnesota OSHA investigated.
There were 70 worksite fatalities in Minnesota in 2012, an increase of 10 from last year but matching the number in 2010, according to preliminary data released last week by the state Department of Labor and Industry. Many did not require an investigation.
The Saints’ $63 million ballpark is scheduled to be ready for the start of the 2015 season. The 7,000-seat site is expected to annually host more than 100 youth, amateur and college events in addition to 50 games for the minor league team.
The Saints, in a statement, said, in part: “There is profound sadness in the St. Paul Saints organization today.”
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this story.