Family members watched worker get buried alive

January 31, 2012 6:51:53 PM PST
ABC7 has learned that relatives watched in horror as a carpenter was buried alive on a Milpitas construction site Saturday. The family members frantically tried to save Raul Zapata of Hayward.

The city was so concerned about safety violations it issued a stop work order three days earlier. That critical information was withheld from the construction workers and it could have saved Zapata's life.

There are several agencies investigating this incident, including those from the city and the state, and the district attorney is reviewing this case for possible criminal charges.

Zapata's family gave us a picture of Raul and were in tears when they talked to us off camera. Zapata's brother, cousin and nephew were all working at the Milpitas construction site where Raul was buried alive when the earth caved in on him on Saturday.

Many of the construction workers there told us they are from Mexico and undocumented. They also say they never knew the city considered the construction site unsafe. They are grieving and Cal/OSHA is investigating.

"This is a situation which has nothing to do with an immigration status. They have the right to work in an area that is safe, that has the sufficient protection in order for them to work safely," said Cal/OSHA Spokesperson Erika Monterroza.

The top building inspector for Milpitas says a building permit for the 5,800-square-foot home was issued in August of last year. There were a number of inspections including one on Jan. 17th in which the contractor was given a corrections list. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the city issued a stop work order and on Saturday, Jan. 28, the unsafe conditions proved deadly. Members of the building trade are outraged.

"It's clear this person has no regard for employees. To continue a job after getting a stop notice like that is just absolutely appalling," said Michael Miller from the Builders Exchange of Santa Clara County.

The general contractor on the permit application is U.S. Sino Investment Inc. with Richard Liu as the CEO and president. He lists a number of projects around Fremont, including a home on Washington Blvd. and a home on Austin Street. The home owner says her friend, Liu, is a well-respected real estate agent and contractor. She did not want to appear on camera but told us he seemed knowledgeable about building a house and the home quality.

According to the Contractor's State License Board, the license for U.S. Sino Investment is active, but found another problem. The company has no worker's compensation insurance which means it could not legally employ any workers. The Milpitas site remains shut down.

"The order prohibiting use is still in effect, so investigations by statue Cal/OSHA has six months to complete," said Monterroza.

Liu has not returned our calls for a comment. We have information he may be in China, where he has extensive business dealings.

Zapata's family is preparing to return his body to Mexico where he lived with his wife and three daughters.