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The News & Observer, Harry Lynch, Associated Press
A section of scaffolding protrudes from a shattered window at the scene of a construction accident that killed three people and sent another to a hospital, Monday, March 23, 2015, in Raleigh, N.C. A scaffolding holding at least three workers fell and crashed into the Charter Square project, an 11-story building being built on the south end of Fayetteville Street.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Workers were dismantling a scaffold at a high-rise construction project on Monday when a piece of it fell to the ground in downtown Raleigh, killing three men and sending another to a hospital.

Jeffrey Hammerstein, community outreach chief for Wake County EMS, said three men died and a fourth was seriously injured in the accident at the glass and steel building called Charter Square in downtown Raleigh. All four men were involved in the construction project, Hammerstein said.

A 911 caller told the operator that men were working on the scaffold when it fell about 11 a.m. The equipment, known as a mast climber scaffold, moves up and down a building's facade to take workers to different floors.

"We just had a mast climber fall off. There were men on it," the caller said, estimating the men fell 200 feet.

The operator asked if the victims were awake, to which the caller responded: "No, they're dead."

The accident happened as subcontractor Associated Scaffolding was in the process of dismantling the scaffold on the building's exterior, said Mike Hampton, the chief operating officer for the building's general contractor, Choate Construction Company.

"We are finished using it. They actually were dismantling that piece when it happened," Hampton said. "It wasn't as if it was business as usual; they went to work and it collapsed."

Choate issued a statement saying the company is "deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries."

Peter Thuston was working inside the building installing a security card reader system when the accident happened.

He said he ran outside to try to help and saw three men in safety harnesses, leading him to believe that they had been attached to the scaffolding.

"It was just a loud crash and a huge cloud of smoke," said Thuston, 32, of Garner. "I noticed three of the guys and it looked like they were dead."

He said a fourth man wearing a safety harness was found on a crushed portable toilet after apparently falling onto it. The man was still breathing and had a pulse, but was barely responsive.

Thuston said he had walked inside minutes before the accident.

"That could have been anybody. That could have been me," he said.

The scaffolding that fell was attached to the side of the new building. One of the tracks had snapped off several stories up and fallen into a twisted heap on the ground below.

State Department of Labor spokesman Neal O'Briant said his agency is investigating. Officials had closed off a wide area around the scene.

A group of men in hard hats and yellow vests, some of which said Associated Scaffolding on them, were talking to an official near the edge of the police line. People who answered multiple calls at the company's Durham headquarters declined to comment.

Hampton said the subcontractor's only job at the site was erecting and dismantling the scaffolding.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show that Associated Scaffolding was issued serious safety violations twice in North Carolina in the past 10 years. A 2007 citation says it was related to access equipment for scaffold platforms, while a 2008 citation says the violation was related to storage of welding materials.

The records show that Choate Construction has been inspected 20 times in North Carolina in the past 10 years and cited for one violation, which wasn't considered serious. O'Briant said the 2014 violation was related to storing flammable materials outside without a fire extinguisher.