CLEARWATER — At 23, Mitchel Klock owned his own welding company and had just gotten married.
On Monday, the Brandon man showed up to work on a Clearwater parking garage that city building officials had deemed potentially unsafe. The company that owned the property had not obtained a permit for repairs to begin, records show.
Then, tragedy struck.
A stairwell of the garage on a commercial property at 26750 U.S. 19 collapsed on Klock, killing him. It would take two days and the demolition of the stairwell to reach him.
Crews worked through the night Tuesday and pulled Klock’s body from the rubble Wednesday morning. Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter later released Klock’s name at a news conference and said the department is conducting a death investigation into the incident to determine if there is any culpability in his death.
“This case will be very intent on kind of looking at the documentation that’s available and what kind of information was learned about the structure up to the point of the tragedy,” Slaughter said. “And then going from there to kind of evaluate how the whole thing was possible.”
As Slaughter spoke to reporters, a pile of rubble about two stories high sat where the stairwell once stood.
The Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday how city records revealed that repairs on the stairwell began before an application for the work was submitted and months after the city of Clearwater determined the garage was potentially unsafe, requiring inspection by a structural engineer.
The building’s owner, Plymouth Plaza LLC, did not submit the required engineering report before the repairs began, records show.
In addition, a former maintenance engineer who worked for the previous owner told the Times that he had raised concerns for years about deterioration of the building from water damage. The engineer, Michael Brookhart, left the company in 2016 but said he called a Clearwater building official in July to repeat his concerns after the deadly collapse of a condominium tower in Surfside.
“As soon as I saw that I’m thinking, my God, the parking garage I worked in for 8½ years,” Brookhart said. “I called city code enforcement and told them that garage was a death trap.”
County records show Plymouth Plaza bought the property in 2020. A spokesperson for the company released a statement to the Times on Tuesday that offered condolences to the worker’s family and said the company was cooperating with the investigation. The spokesperson did not respond to additional questions and on Wednesday declined to comment further.
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Brookhart said he worked for the former owner of the property, Decade Properties, from 2008 to 2016. A representative for the company did not return a message on Wednesday.
Brookhart said as soon as he started the job and throughout his tenure he expressed concerns to his supervisor about concrete separating from many areas of the five-level garage, exposing rebar in some places.
“I was picking up chunks of concrete, probably from about 100 spots,” he said.
Brookhart said he also noticed support brackets in the garage starting to “rust down.” He was particularly concerned about an area around the stairwell on the southwest corner of the building, where a large, U-shaped crack had developed around two nearby parking spaces.
Brookhart said he could see by looking up from the third level of the garage where the concrete was giving way underneath the fourth level, causing that floor to settle as much as half an inch.
He said the company had to replace the stairwell door on the third floor after it rusted from water exposure.
“That’s what created this monster,” he said. “Water leaks.”
It’s the same stairwell that partially collapsed on Tuesday, he said. Brookhart said he contacted a city building official not long after the 12-story Champlain Towers South building collapsed in Surfside north of Miami Beach on June 24, killing 98 people.
Zev Freidus, listed as a registered agent for Plymouth LLC, addressed Brookhart’s claims in a statement to WFLA, Ch. 8, which first reported his account.
“For now, all we can say is that the former maintenance engineer you refer to worked only for the prior owner from whom we purchased the building and never for us during the time we have been owners,” the statement said. “We did not receive any communications or expressions of concern whatsoever from him since our acquisition or for that matter, during our pre-purchase investigations.”
The city received a complaint and inspected the parking garage in early July, according to a case summary report by an inspector with the Clearwater Planning and Development Department. An inspector visited and wrote that parts of the building had “signs of deterioration” and further inspection by a structural engineer was needed, the report states.
City officials in mid-July sent a notice of violation to the building’s owners, requesting that they submit an engineering safety report. A representative for the owner told the inspector in August that they had contracted a structural engineer and were waiting for the engineer’s schedule to open up for an inspection. The city checked in with the owners twice more, on Oct. 12 and Nov. 24, but the engineer still had not completed the inspection needed so a contractor could begin, according to the case summary report.
The next development in the city’s report is news of a fatality after the stairwell collapsed.
“I was also told that a welding company had begun repairs, although we have not received the engineers report yet and a permit has not been applied for,” the inspector wrote in the report.
Slaughter said the property manager was communicating with the city of Clearwater’s inspection staff and that it seemed there was no intent to ignore the issue with the building.
Officials have not said what caused the stairwell to collapse and said they are unclear what Klock was doing when the collapse happened.
Police are using the private contractor that aided in the recovery of Klock’s body as a source for impartial information about structural engineering and the repair processes, Slaughter said. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is also investigating.
A large excavator was transported from the central Florida to the Clearwater site Tuesday, where the machine worked from the top down, removing football sized chunks of concrete from the building, Clearwater Fire Rescue Division Chief John Klinefelter said.
When crews were close to Klock, all equipment was pulled back and the Pinellas County Technical Rescue team began to work by hand. Around 5 a.m., the team was ready to remove the last section of the stairwell still on top of Klock.
The team, with the help of some heavy equipment, removed the last piece of concrete about 6:30 a.m. and recovered Klock’s body.
Authorities said the fate of the building, which is next to Tampa Bay Water’s headquarters and leased by several companies for parking, is unclear. No one is currently allowed inside and all employee cars have been removed.
Slaughter said Klock started his company, M Klock Welding Services, in 2019. The chief said he was a hardworking person, a “true American” who was doing a dangerous job to provide for his family.
“This has obviously put a strain on them emotionally and even financially,” Slaughter said.
James Foxworth, a neighbor of Klock’s who knew him for four or five years, said Klock liked to go boating with friends and was a respectful guy.
“He was always real kind to me,” Foxworth said.