Workers on Sandman hotel construction say they saw problems

Freeman

Members of the Fort Worth Fire Department inspect the rear of the Sandman Signature Hotel facing Throckmorton Street on Tuesday, January 9, 2024, in downtown Fort Worth. Multiple people were injured in the explosion Monday afternoon, with 21 hospitalized or treated on scene, according to the fire department and MedStar.

Members of the Fort Worth Fire Department inspect the rear of the Sandman Signature Hotel facing Throckmorton Street on Tuesday, January 9, 2024, in downtown Fort Worth. Multiple people were injured in the explosion Monday afternoon, with 21 hospitalized or treated on scene, according to the fire department and MedStar.

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Former employees of the Sandman Signature Hotel developer say they witnessed what they considered to be irregular construction practices during the renovation of the downtown Fort Worth tower, where an explosion likely involving a gas leak injured 21 people this month.

The Jan. 8 blast, which originated in or near the 20-story hotel’s basement-level restaurant, happened roughly six months after construction completed. It has triggered an extensive investigation that could take weeks or longer to determine the exact cause.

Fort Worth’s fire chief said last week he believes there is a “high likelihood” that there was a gas leak in the building and that equipment, such as laundry machines or a water heater, ignited the explosion that destroyed the lower levels of the century-old W.T. Waggoner tower.

An explosion in a basement restaurant of the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, blew out windows on the first and second floors and scattered debris hundreds of feet around the 20-story building.
An explosion in a basement restaurant of the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, blew out windows on the first and second floors and scattered debris hundreds of feet around the 20-story building. Glen Ellman Fort Worth Fire Department

In exclusive interviews with the Star-Telegram, four people who were employed by the developer and involved in the construction project said they were concerned about the quality of work on gas plumbing and other parts of the building. The former employees include project managers and a supervisor, all of whom were laid off last summer after the hotel opened in March and the Musume restaurant opened in June.

Several hotel and restaurant workers who have already filed lawsuits allege they smelled gas before the explosion. The initial flurry of litigation accuses the developer, Northland Properties, and others of negligence and unsafe building or safety practices, though none of the lawsuits yet contain detailed evidence backing those claims.

Gas distributor Atmos Energy has determined the explosion was not caused by its lines, which run under streets and sidewalks up to the property line.

Northland Properties is a Canadian company whose portfolio includes the Sandman hotel brand as well as resorts, restaurants and the Dallas Stars National Hockey League team. The company and its owner, Tom Gaglardi, have not responded to interview requests for this story.

In a statement Thursday, the company said it continues to “fully cooperate with the authorities who are leading a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the incident and the next steps. This is a complex situation, and we cannot provide further details on the allegations as the investigation is ongoing.”

Northland also said it is providing counseling services to its workers and continues to compensate them “while we gain a better understanding of our operations moving forward.”

An aerial look at where a powerful explosion damaged the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth on Monday, Jan. 8, 2023.
An aerial look at where a powerful explosion damaged the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth on Monday, Jan. 8, 2023. Steve Wilson

Concerns about plumbing work

Investigators have given no indication that construction practices may have contributed to the explosion, and the city has not yet released records of inspections that should have noted any safety issues with gas plumbing.

But the former employees interviewed by the Star-Telegram say they were concerned by what they saw about the quality and supervision of some of the plumbing work.

They said the developer hired or paid licensed master plumbers and electricians whose credentials appear on permits, but the company’s in-house crews did most of the work.

The former employees said they rarely, if ever, saw the responsible master plumbers and electricians perform or directly supervise work on the hotel and restaurant. Rather, they would see them occasionally check over the work of the in-house crews ahead of inspections.

This Jan. 13 view from West Eighth Street shows where damage appeared to be most extensive after the Jan. 8 blast at the Sandman Signature Hotel.
This Jan. 13 view from West Eighth Street shows where damage appeared to be most extensive after the Jan. 8 blast at the Sandman Signature Hotel. Bob Booth Special to the Star-Telegram

One of the former employees is Tyler Chanthachone, who worked for Northland as an administrative assistant and handled invoices from contractors.

“I would invoice out that we were hiring a master plumber, but I never saw or met whoever it was,” Chanthachone said in a phone interview. “I knew who the plumbing foreman was, and he was in charge, but he’s not the one that we were hiring as a master plumber.”

She shared an invoice with the Star-Telegram from an Irving-based master plumber, John Klassen, for the months of December 2022 and January 2023. Made out to “Northland Developments Tx INC,” the invoice was for a flat sum of $1,000 plus tax for work on another of the company’s Sandman hotels under construction in Irving. Klassen is listed as the licensed professional on at least five plumbing permits for the Fort Worth Sandman building.

The plumbing foreman, Frank Colon, oversaw the Fort Worth project and other Northland projects in the Metroplex, according to Chanthachone and others. Colon is not a registered master plumber, according to state records. He was licensed as a plumber’s apprentice until his credentials expired July 31, a state website shows. Colon did not reply to text and voice messages seeking comment.

The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners requires a responsible master plumber to oversee work on a project. Using a master plumber’s license on permitting without having them fully oversee work as required would be a violation of the state plumbing code, according to Steve Davis, the board’s director of enforcement.

“The responsible master has to be knowledgeable of the day-to-day activities of his or her company and they must be knowledgeable of contracts and permits that are issued and make sure that the job site is manned with properly licensed individuals,” Davis said in a phone interview.

In a brief phone conversation last week, Klassen told the Star-Telegram that he’s worked for Northland for 15 years and described himself an “office person” who did not need to oversee the day-to-day work. He said any allegations made about his role in the project would be from “disgruntled” former employees who wouldn’t have recognized him on a job site. He then hung up.

Klassen is listed on at least one permit for 2021 plumbing work at Northland’s first Sandman hotel in the Metroplex, which opened in Plano in late 2018. Northland is building its third Sandman in the Las Colinas district in Irving.

Not a criminal investigation

Last week, Fire Chief James Davis gave an overview of the explosion in a presentation to the board of directors of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

He said that after it was determined there was not a problem with Atmos’ gas lines, the investigation turned its focus to inside the hotel building. He said the investigation is not at a point yet to indicate definitively that natural gas was the cause of what happened.

He characterized the probe as a civil investigation. “We see no evidence of criminal intent in any manner,” he said.

Fort Worth Fire Chief Jim Davis speaks to reporters on Jan. 9, the day after the explosion that caused significant damage to the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown.
Fort Worth Fire Chief Jim Davis speaks to reporters on Jan. 9, the day after the explosion that caused significant damage to the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown. Chris Torres [email protected]

In an interview after the presentation, Davis told the Star-Telegram that he had no knowledge of any reports in the hours prior to the explosion of a smell of gas in the area.

He said a final occupancy inspection by the city in March, just before the hotel opened, would have included gas service lines. He said there were no problems reported, and he was unaware of any problems related to construction.

That inspection report is among the records that the city has not yet released to the Star-Telegram.

Musume restaurant’s kitchen and dining rooms on the basement level of the Sandman Signature Hotel incorporated the century-old Waggoner building’s old bank vaults when it was renovated. This photo was taken in July.
Musume restaurant’s kitchen and dining rooms on the basement level of the Sandman Signature Hotel incorporated the century-old Waggoner building’s old bank vaults when it was renovated. This photo was taken in July. Erik Kluetz

Alleged negligence on the worksite

Plaintiffs in several of the recently filed lawsuits against Northland, Musume and Atmos Energy have claimed that negligence led to the explosion.

A lawsuit filed Thursday by a kitchen worker who was the most severely injured claims employees alerted hotel management of a natural gas odor before the blast but nothing was done.

The dining room at Musume in the lower level of the Sandman, in the W.T. Waggoner Building in Fort Worth June 26, 2023.
The dining room at Musume in the lower level of the Sandman, in the W.T. Waggoner Building in Fort Worth June 26, 2023. Bud Kennedy [email protected]

Another suit filed last week levels accusations of “failing to properly supervise the maintenance and construction of the hotel.”

A lawsuit brought by hotel worker Jose Mira, who described the explosion to the Star-Telegram in the minutes after the blast, accuses the defendants of “failing to timely observe and inspect the work-related project in order to correct any unsafe practice or condition.”

Another lawsuit brought by 10 others claims gross negligence on the part of Northland, Sandman Hotels, Atmos Energy and Musume owner Rock Libations. The suit claims the defendants are liable due to improper use, maintenance and transportation of natural gas utilities and a failure to implement, enforce and follow policies, procedures and guidelines for natural gas utility safety.

Chanthachone and the other former employees interviewed by the Star-Telegram said they witnessed what they believed to be negligent practices with piping as well.

Chanthachone said that last summer, after Musume had opened, the gas piping in the kitchen was found to be not up to code and needed to be replaced.

She said she was sent to the hotel to get items crossed off a punch list of miscellaneous unfinished tasks. The punch list, she said, indicated that “the gas piping in the restaurant needed to be updated, because the original team put the wrong piping in. … Our team had to come in and fix all that.”

She was let go in August and does not know whether the piping was fixed. She was told by the company that all the work was finished.

The others interviewed by the Star-Telegram were also laid off by Northland around the same time in August.

One of them was a project superintendent, who asked for anonymity pending the results of the official investigation. He had been working on another Sandman hotel and was sent to the Fort Worth worksite to complete punch list tasks in early August.

When he arrived, he found a 2-inch gas pipe had been left disconnected in a sub-level basement floor below the restaurant. He said he immediately alerted the Plano-based Northland contractor in charge of the project, Alejandro Espinosa.

A text message exchange shared with the Star-Telegram showed a project superintendent discussing the disconnected pipes with Espinosa, including a photo of the pipes. The gas line was for a make-up air unit, which circulates fresh air into the kitchen of the restaurant.

The former superintendent expressed concern and relief that the gas line in question had yet to be turned on, but Espinosa told him that the necessary part had been on back order and they would not connect the gas until winter, according to the text messages.

Such a gas line should have at least been capped off to avoid safety risks until the connecting piece came in, according to Gordon Smith, chief examiner at the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners.

Espinosa declined to comment for this story.

The former superintendent called in Colon, the project’s plumbing foreman, to connect the pipes on Aug. 3. The former superintendent expressed relief to one of the project managers in a text message, saying he could “sleep at night” knowing it was fixed that day.

An aerial view of West 8th and Throckmorton streets bordering the Sandman Signature Hotel on Wednesday, January 10, 2024, in downtown Fort Worth.
An aerial view of West 8th and Throckmorton streets bordering the Sandman Signature Hotel on Wednesday, January 10, 2024, in downtown Fort Worth. Amanda McCoy [email protected]

Northland fined in Canada

Northland Properties has previously dealt with litigation for workplace negligence and irregular employment practices, according to media reports.

In October 2014, the Vancouver Sun reported that Northland and owner Gaglardi had been convicted on two counts of environmental infractions for damaging fish habitats during remodeling of his lakeside family home in British Columbia.

That article cited a federal prosecutor who described an institutional attitude of disregard for construction and environmental law and called the habitat contamination the results of “blatant, blatant, blatant” handiwork of a “privileged family.”

Gaglardi was ordered to pay over $140,000 in fines.

The provincial government of British Columbia delayed the opening of a Northland Properties resort in 2011 after a contractor for the company contaminated a water source in the resort town of Revelstoke, according to news reports. The province denied Northland’s claims after the company sued for damages. Northland was later fined over $46,000 for illegally dumping raw sewage in the town.

In 2013, Northland settled a class action lawsuit brought by foreign workers of its group of Canadian Denny’s restaurants. The allegations claimed that Denny’s had not provided the work it had promised the workers from the Philippines who had paid thousands in recruitment and travel fees.

This story was originally published January 22, 2024, 5:30 AM.

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Cody Copeland is an accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has previously reported from Mexico for Courthouse News and Mexico News Daily. Habla español. If he’s not working, he’s probably playing with his dogs, Kiki and Galleta.

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