Families of workers killed in Idaho airport hangar collapse sue construction company

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The families of two construction workers killed when an airport hangar in Idaho collapsed are suing several companies that were involved in the building process, alleging the businesses recklessly cut corners and used inappropriate materials for the build.

The private hangar at the Boise airport was still under construction when it collapsed under high winds on Jan. 31, killing three people and injuring nine others. The families of Mario Sontay and Mariano Coc filed the wrongful death lawsuit against Big D Builders, Steel Building Systems, Inland Crane and Speck Steel in federal court earlier this week, asking for unspecified monetary damages.

Sontay, 32, and Coc, 24, had only been working on the hangar job for six days when the massive metal structure collapsed. They'd been sent to the hangar from another construction site by Big D Builders because the shell of the building was supposed to be completed by the end of January, according to the lawsuit, and that contract deadline was looming.

Problems with the construction may have been evident in the days before the collapse, with some subcontractors on the site reporting that the metal beams that made up the skeleton of the building looked like they were twisting or weren't properly braced.

“Many subcontractors were critical of the rushed schedule,” Enrique Serna and Jane Gordon, the attorneys representing the families, wrote in the lawsuit. “They cited ‘cutting of corners,’ reported ‘bowing of beams,’ snapping cables, a lack of key cross bracing, flange bracing and cable bracing."

Big D Builders, based in Meridian, Idaho, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Both Inland Crane, based in Boise, and Steel Building Systems, based in Emmett, Idaho, expressed condolences to the families of the victims in written statements.

“While we mourn the loss of our partners, friends, and colleagues, all evidence demonstrates that Inland Crane and our employees are not at fault for this tragedy,” Inland Crane wrote.

“Family is the core of who we are at Steel Building Systems,” Andy Speck, the co-owner of SBS and Speck Steel, wrote in an email. “Our heartfelt condolences go out to the victims and their families. We cannot speak to a majority of the complaints filed as SBS was not the installer of the metal building, nor did we possess or demonstrate any authority over job site operations.”

On the day of the collapse, Sontay and Coc were installing bolts to secure the rafters of the building, standing on a manlift that hoisted them 40 feet (12.19 meters) above the ground. Stiff winds were blowing at the airport, reaching between 25 miles and 35 miles per hour (about 40 to 56 kilometers per hour).

Around 5 p.m., witnesses began hearing popping noises and a loud roaring sound. Some of the workers inside the building were able to run to safety, but others were trapped.

The lift that was holding Coc and Sontay was struck by a falling rafter and slammed into the ground. Coc, who had moved to the United States from Guatemala in 2020, died instantly. Sontay, also a Guatemala citizen who came to the U.S. in 2021, succumbed to his injuries about five minutes later. Both men were supporting families in their home countries, according to the lawsuit.

Big D Builders co-owner Craig Durrant, 59, was also in the building when it fell, and was decapitated.

Serna, the attorney for the Coc and Sontay families, said in a press conference Wednesday that Big D Builders and the other companies acted negligently with disregard for the workers' safety. Big D Builders had a set of construction plans that had already been approved by the city of Boise, but instead decided to use a second set of plans designed by Steel Building Systems that called for roughly 30% less bracing, according to the lawsuit.

The building was also constructed using a combination of purchased prefabricated materials and locally-manufactured bracing and structural supports that weren't properly designed to fit the prefabricated pieces, according to the lawsuit. It all resulted in “serious design and engineering defects,” the workers' families contend, a problem that was exacerbated when the strong winds began.

On that day, Inland Crane had removed three of the four cranes that were at the construction site, according to the lawsuit, but left an older model that was serving as an erection support. It wasn't rated for high wind speeds and was improperly tied to the structure, according to the lawsuit.

“They know better! They know better, not to act like this. But a lot of the time they think it’s going to be OK,” Serna said. “I hope these practices are not carried on because practices like this kill people. It clearly killed my clients.”

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is still investigating the collapse, and a report on the agency's findings is expected to be released within the next several weeks.