Rubble & Dust

The Collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel

strangers guide

In an exclusive excerpt from the New Orleans issue of Stranger’s Guide, author Thomas Beller examines the 2019 collapse of the city’s Hard Rock Hotel, the subsequent cleanup, and the still-unanswered questions.

New Orleans is perched at the edge of the continent, at the mouth of a great river — “the colon of America,” remarked a friend who grew up here — and yet it is small enough in scale that you can almost see and hear the gears of its municipal life turning. To live there is to toggle between a necessary oblivion and being constantly alert to threat. The threats that get the most attention are the ones you can see: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods. But the ones that most unnerved me were the menaces unseen.

There is a smell that wafts over New Orleans now and then, an aroma that is distinctly toxic even if it is faint. It usually comes late at night. I would open my front door on a midnight errand to bring the trash out to the bin, and there it would be: an invisible, airborne toxic event. Now and then, you would wake up to it and find yourself at the top of your front steps in the soft morning air, breathing it in, trying to decide if you could get used to it, or even should get used to it. It’s a chemical smell, the source undetermined.

Everyone I’ve talked to thinks it emanates from a plant across the river, on the West Bank. The culprits are both generic and specific. The city is surrounded by refineries and factories producing toxins; the state legislature’s attitude toward industrial pollution could be called lax, to put it mildly. My awareness of the unseen threats became most acute when a neighbor sanding their old house in preparation for having it painted — an unfortunately common practice in New Orleans — gave the surroundings, including our house, a visible dusting of emulsified lead paint, predictably alarming for parents of two small children. It heightened my awareness of the invisible dangers of New Orleans.

In the summer of 1853, at the height of a yellow fever epidemic in which 8,000 people would die, The New Orleans Courier, seeking to assuage the fears of its readers, advised them: “Above all, keep your imagination from being frightened.” The Illustrated London News, editorializing that same summer, “New Orleans has been built upon a site that only the madness of commercial lust could ever have tempted men to occupy.”

• • •

The corner of Rampart Street and Canal Street is now, in the spring of 2022, returning to something like normal. The street cars are still not running, their return put off another year, though auto and pedestrian traffic has resumed. The newly restored Saenger Theater, one of the city’s jewels, is again hosting shows. Bob Dylan played there just this past spring. But for nearly two years, from 2019 to 2021, the theater was dark. The theater and the whole intersection were closed when the building across the street, an unfinished 18-story structure, collapsed. The structure was supposed to be a Hard Rock Hotel. But after 9 a.m., October 12, 2019, it became known as the Hard Rock Collapse.

The name, “Hard Rock Hotel,” is handy, useful and ironic — the cement and steel with which the building was constructed turned out to be as soft as wet papier-mâché. But beyond a financial transaction and a banner hung by string, the structure was designed and built by the Kailas family, the project’s developers, and Citadel Builders, the project’s lead contractor. Shortly after the collapse, when the city was galvanized by a state of outrage, David Hammer, a local reporter for WWLTV news, showed up at the offices of Mohan Kailas, cameraman in tow. It was like the old 60 Minutes doorstep interviews, except that there was no interview, no confrontation. When Kailas — the family’s patriarch — saw the camera through the glass doors of his office, he turned and ran inside, out of sight. The way he scurried away was the physical manifestation of a sense almost everyone had in the aftermath of the disaster: whoever was most responsible for this would not be held to account.

The collapse took place on the morning of October 12, 2019. For almost two years, New Orleans was shadowed by a ruin. To gaze at the structure from the many available angles was to observe a structure that looked like a high-rise devastated by a bomb and then meticulously transported — from Beirut, Gaza or Mariupol, or any other landscape torn to shreds by war — into the landscape of one of America’s most recognizable tourist destinations, the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Three men working in the building died. One body was removed almost immediately. The other two remained, their exact location within the rubble unknown, at first. More than any other American city, New Orleans is known for its cemeteries, with their above ground mausoleums. This legacy now had a new, unexpectedly modern chapter in the form of a partially collapsed building.

strangers guide
This excerpt appears in its entirety in Stranger’s Guide: New Orleans.

• • •

October of 2019 began with record high temperatures for New Orleans. On Saturday morning, October 12, it had cooled a bit. The sky was overcast, milky. The building was located on the corner of iconic Canal Street and North Rampart Street — which runs alongside the length of the French Quarter — the site of a former Woolworth’s, where the first lunch counter sit-ins in Louisiana had occurred in 1960.

The Hard Rock had reached its full height of 18 stories. The lower floors were enclosed in a purple cladding. The upper floors were still a concrete shell. A pool had been lifted to the roof the previous day by one of the two giant yellow cranes that loomed above the building.

At 9 a.m., the hotel was standing just as it had been built — a commendation one doesn’t think to offer a building until it falls down. Then the top tiers of the corner on Rampart Street began to collapse with the momentum of a mudslide. One layer sloughed down onto one next, each floor pancaking and drooping on the one below. Debris, steel beams and dust rained down onto the streets while an external hoist — an exposed steel elevator shaft — tipped over with the rigidity of a drunk passing out on his feet.

By midday Saturday, two videos of the event were circulating online. One was shot from the vantage of a Canal Street streetcar.

A tourist happened to be pointing their phone out the open window just as the trolley approached the hotel. Suddenly, that which should be static — a building, a skyscraper — starts to move. We see the debris come down, followed by a cloud of dust, after which whoever is holding the phone begins jostling with the other panicked riders, trying to get out. There is a blur of shoulders and faces. In that footage, the collapse seems propelled by something, as though some explosion had occurred, but I think this is me adjusting my memory of it to fit my own needs — it’s important that there be a reason, an action, a singular event, that causes a skyscraper to collapse. The alternative is too unsettling.

This video can no longer be consulted — it seems to have been scrubbed from the internet. Another video has become the event’s Zapruder footage. Shot from within the silence of a car at a red light on North Rampart Street, it follows the long, straight perspective of that boulevard, which runs the length of the French Quarter and is lined with elegant, black street lamps. The construction site looms in the middle distance, on the left. Across the street, on the right, is the much smaller Saenger Theater, a historic structure from the 1920s that had been meticulously restored — at a glacial pace — after Katrina. The video shows the collapse from the start. A cloud of gray dust puffs out from the top — hence that feeling of an explosion — and soon the hoist topples and everything is a haze of gray dust that blends in with the overcast sky. Several construction workers can be seen running out of the building and across the street toward the Saenger. One of them wears a bright orange vest, for safety. A male voice intrudes into the silence of the car and, with a tone that mingles horror and adrenalin, which is to say excitement, exclaims, “Oh-my-God.”

“New Orleans streets have long, lonesome perspectives;” wrote Truman Capote, who lived in the city as a child. “In empty hours their atmosphere is like Chirico, and things innocent, ordinarily… acquire qualities of violence.” The remark could serve as this short video’s epigram.

Only after watching this short clip numerous times did I notice that the streetcar from which the first video is shot can be seen rolling into frame. It comes to an abrupt stop as the building begins to fall. Something about the little red and white streetcar has, for me, an echo of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, as is the whole event and aftermath of the Hard Rock Collapse.

There were 112 workers inside the Hard Rock Hotel construction site when the upper floors of the 18 story structure began to collapse. Most of the workers got out. Three were trapped inside. By the end of the day, one had been removed, dead, while his wife, who had rushed to the scene vowing to wait as long as it took, looked on. Dogs and robots were sent into the structure to search for the other two men. It was too unstable for people. The second was located and confirmed dead by the end of the day. The last, buried in the rubble somewhere, could not be located. They would be interred in the Hard Rock Mausoleum for 10 months, until their removal in August of 2020.

• • •

Once the dust cleared, the building looked like a concrete soufflé that had collapsed. By Saturday evening, 18 workers were sent to nearby hospitals. One was a Honduran man named Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma. An undocumented immigrant, he had been in the US for 18 years, most of which were spent working in construction. He had a wife and three children.

Ramirez had worked on the Hard Rock site for three months by the time of the collapse, part of a crew that was framing windows and doing related structural work. On several occasions he had expressed concerns about the structure to his supervisors, telling them that his laser leveler was showing that the building was not level. It was off by 2–3 inches. He raised the issue repeatedly to his supervisor and was told to continue working, not to worry about it. When he brought it up again, he was told, in essence, if you don’t want to do that work, we will find someone else to do it.

He and his crew worked on the 8th through 14th floors. By the time he got to the 12th floor, he knew something was wrong. He was on the 14th floor Saturday morning when it began to collapse. The escape was frantic. He was jumping down from floor to floor.

Right after the collapse, Jambalaya News, a Spanish-language news station, arrived on the scene and began interviewing workers on Facebook live, Ramirez among them.

That same morning, after the collapse, Ramirez, who was known to speak out on safety concerns, was standing with a group of his coworkers who were saying things like, you knew something was wrong, in earshot of several supervisors.

Sunday, the day after the collapse, Ramirez went to the hospital experiencing back pain, headaches and other symptoms of shock. Monday morning, he took his son, a US citizen, to school. Then, in an attempt to calm down from the events of the weekend, he went fishing in Bayou Sauvage, a bucolic bit of swampy parkland halfway between his home in Slidell and New Orleans. As he drove, he noticed a gray truck following him on the highway. Shortly after he arrived, the gray truck pulled over next to him. He had just gotten a line in the water. A fish and wildlife official emerging from the gray truck asked Ramirez for his fishing license.

He presented a valid fishing license.

As Mary Yanik, the immigration lawyer representing Ramirez, recounted to me, the official then asked for his driver’s license.

“I’m not driving,” Ramirez responded. “I am fishing.”

“I am going to write you up,” responded the official, and he wrote Ramirez a ticket. Perhaps for fishing without a driver’s license?

Another car with a Fish and Wildlife officer arrived. Soon after, two cars from Customs and Border Protection showed up. Ramirez was arrested.

“This is a rural area,” Yanik told me. “There is no port, airport or border — Customs and Border Protection are not doing random policing in the community. Why was the Border Patrol two minutes away from this bayou by Slidell?”

Ramirez was in ICE custody when I first spoke to Yanik, as was the ticket that Fish and Wildlife wrote. He was then moved to an ICE facility in Alexandria, LA, which Yanik said was a sign he would be imminently deported. While he was in custody, he was interviewed three times about his experience at the Hard Rock by investigators for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and his lawyers argued that he should not be deported until the investigation into the Hard Rock collapse was completed.

“The situation,” she explained, “is that OSHA is trying to understand what happened at the Hard Rock, trying to speak to as many workers as possible, in an environment where people are very afraid to speak. And then there’s ICE, which is trying to deport him.” Yanik said at the time: “I am hopeful that the information he has about that building, the working conditions and the structure before it collapsed, and also about his employers, will be recognized as important to this very public tragedy.”

The hope was in vain. Ramirez, married with three children, was deported on November 29, 2019.

Yanik specializes in immigration retaliation against workers. She was exasperated and depleted after the deportation, both from the specifics of Ramirez’s case and by the larger implications of the Hard Rock Collapse. She shared data with me indicating that the government spends 11 times more on immigration enforcement that it does to enforce labor standards. “I think there is every reason to think this was retaliatory,” she said.

• • •

On the morning of the collapse, the wreckage of the middle floors was as disturbing as the pancaked floors at the top — the structural material that normally would have been hidden within walls and ceilings lay exposed, a forest of torn and twisted metal, as though it had been hit by a bomb. To stand and stare at it from the street, which almost immediately became a pastime for hundreds of people, was to confront the visual paradox that something so brand new should look so ruined.

On the day of the collapse, it seemed plausible that the rest of the building would come down at any moment. An evacuation zone was created. The central location of the hotel, at the edge of both the French Quarter and the central business district, meant that the city would experience disruptions to public transportation; those commuting to work would need to work around the closed-off blocks.

The Hard Rock Hotel collapse was not the only thing that went wrong that day. Uptown, a water main exploded, sending a huge chunk of asphalt flying into the air and flooding several blocks. This caused a loss of water pressure, resulting in a “boil water alert” for the whole neighborhood. While not exactly frequent, boil water alerts for whole sections of the city are familiar occurrences.

A friend told me that an electrical pole had toppled for no apparent reason downtown, sending houses and shops in the vicinity into a period of blackout that lasted the day. Also, it was election day, and citizens of Louisiana were casting votes for governor.

Then there was news that the new, billion-dollar airport terminal, whose opening had been delayed three times in the year since it was first scheduled to open, had been delayed yet again. The architectural plans had called for a sewage line running beneath the concrete foundation of the airport to be supported by brackets at intervals of two feet. The contractor on the project had overridden the design and placed the brackets every three feet as a cost-saving measure. And the pipes, even before the airport opened, cracked. The new terminal’s concrete foundation had to be jackhammered and the sewage pipes replaced, presumably with brackets every two feet.

Literary critic and historian Louis Menand, writing in the preface to his book American Studies, compared the progress of civilization to driving past a highway construction crew every day — a bunch of guys in vests who seem to be doing not very much. And yet, one day, the highway has a new lane. The road has expanded. The workers have moved on. He seemed to be describing the progress of a culture in the same way that Hemingway once described the process of bankruptcy: “Gradually, then suddenly.” Here in New Orleans, the road never seems to be completed; sometimes, it simply collapses and disappears from view.

• • •

Read the rest of this story in Stranger’s Guide: New Orleans.

About Stranger’s Guide: Before there were guidebooks, 18th- and 19th-century authors wrote “stranger’s guides” to cities and countries — pamphlets and books that combined helpful tips with particular and offbeat advice and context: the best boarding houses alongside bits of history, preferred brothels as well as facts about paleontology and poetry. They were personal, eccentric and intimate portrayals of place. Stranger’s Guide is a modern version of that idea.