INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The tears began as soon as Mirna Ontiveros caught sight of SoFi Stadium. It was a Saturday, on an unusually cold and windy morning, and Mirna still wasn’t sure why she was here. In the months since her husband, an ironworker named Juan Becerra, fell to his death while helping to construct this lavish football stadium, Mirna had wrestled with the idea of seeing it for herself.
She kept thinking about what her husband must have felt the moment he began to fall — the fear, the helplessness, whatever else races through one’s mind in the seconds it takes to descend more than 100 feet into the unknown of death. And through her grief, she couldn’t shake the thought that Juan Carlos Becerra died alone, more than 1,600 miles from those who loved him most. So here she was, gazing at this opulent arena from the corner of an empty parking lot associated with the neighboring Forum, separated by a chain-link fence because a wrongful death lawsuit hangs over her grief. His spirit eluded her.
“It’s hard,” Mirna, 40, said in Spanish. “I came here with the idea of maybe seeing him here, feeling him, but all I see is this stadium and I feel nothing. Nothing but sadness.”
Mirna brought her 5-year-old son, Juan Jr., who reminds her more of her late husband each day. Mirna noticed a drastic change in Juan when Juan Jr. came into their lives. He stopped going out late and became more family-focused. For a while, he quit drinking. Their marriage grew stronger.
Juan, 37, spent most of the last half-decade working on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and grew increasingly tired of the work. Near the end of May, with the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers less than four months away from beginning their seasons and the restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic purportedly causing a late scramble, Juan accepted the opportunity to return for a second stint at SoFi Stadium as a rope access technician. The pay and the opportunity were too good to pass up. This was going to be his last job away from his home in Brownsville, Texas. Juan kept talking about how he didn’t want his son to grow up with a father who was always gone.
He died on June 5, a Friday, a little after 11 a.m. PT, seven days before Mirna and Juan Jr. promised to visit. Their flight instead came 22 weeks later. Lily Hernandez, Mirna’s sister-in-law and confidant, took the window seat in the 17th row of their late-afternoon United flight to prevent Mirna from seeing SoFi Stadium overhead as they flew into Los Angeles International Airport. Mirna saw that unmistakable translucent roof anyway and wept. “Ahí te quedaste,” she said to no one in particular — meaning, There you stayed.
“It pains me that because of a technicality, because of one minor detail, I don’t have my husband,” Mirna said while staring at SoFi Stadium the following morning. “Everyone else gets to go on with their lives, and I’m here without the father of my son.”
ROBERT JUAREZ WAS inches away from Juan Becerra when he died and keeps thinking about the improbability of it all. They had spent the last month working side by side, and Juarez never even saw Juan trip. That morning, he did. And he did so near the one section of the one roof panel — among 302 of them — that just so happened to be loose.
“It’s f—ed up, man,” Juarez said between tears. “I never thought I would’ve witnessed something like that. And it’s f—ed up because you felt like you couldn’t do nothing for him.”
A walkway, commonly referred to by the workers as a “gutter,” encircles the top portion of the SoFi Stadium roof. It’s 4 to 5 feet wide, Juarez estimated, and it was common for workers to walk along it without the support of a harness line. It offered plenty of cover. About 3 feet above it sits a ledge that is about 18 inches wide, followed by a gap about the width of one’s foot, followed by another 18-inch-wide ledge. Beyond that are the ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) panels that make up the roof’s structure, which by then were fully installed and more than capable of supporting an average person’s weight.
The day he died, Juarez said, Juan was carrying about a dozen ratchet straps. There was debris on the walkway, so Juan made his way onto the ledge and kept walking for about five minutes. As they approached the end of their journey, Juarez turned around, thinking Juan might need an assist, at which point he saw Juan stumble, collapse to the floor and fall directly through a panel that wasn’t fully secured, with no signage to indicate its instability.
“I just couldn’t grab him.”
Juan’s coworker Robert Juarez
“I just couldn’t grab him,” Juarez said. “He just f—ing fell through, man.”
Juan was pronounced dead, without the need for medical intervention, at 11:10 a.m. PT. The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner said he fell about 120 feet along the east side of SoFi Stadium. A 17-page complaint filed in L.A. Superior Court on Aug. 3 cited a lack of fall protection equipment, the removal of a roof panel without notice and hazardous objects obstructing the location of the fall as reasons Juan’s death could have been avoided.
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“Due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the required completion date in August 2020 for the forthcoming NFL season,” the lawsuit reads, “work was unnecessarily and unsafely hurried by the Defendants, resulting in the lack of appropriate safety precautions and lack of a safe work space, which were a substantial factor in causing the fall.”
Five law firms — including one tied to Mikal Watts, who famously negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement for Southern California wildfire victims last year — are tied to the suit. Six companies are listed as defendants, including Stadco LA, SoFi Stadium’s controlling entity, and the companies that make up the Turner-AECOM Hunt venture that oversaw construction.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health completed its investigation on Dec. 4 and cited two companies, FabriTec Structures LLC and ZD Inspections LLC, with a combined five violations totaling more than $54,000 in proposed penalties. Each company was ruled to have been in breach of a regulation that states “floor, roof and skylight openings shall be guarded by either temporary railings and toeboards or by covers,” which Cal-OSHA considered a “serious, accident-related” violation connected to Becerra’s fall. ZD Inspections was also cited for not correcting “unsafe conditions involving a fall hazard” in the southeast portion of the stadium roof and for its employees not wearing “personal fall arrest, personal restraint or positioning systems” while working in that area.
A representative from SoFi Stadium, given an opportunity to respond to this story, declined comment when told of similar allegations made in the original lawsuit, citing pending litigation. A representative for Turner-AECOM Hunt referred ESPN to the original statement that was issued by the company shortly after Juan’s accident. A representative from ZD Inspections wrote in an email that the company is appealing the Cal-OSHA citations and expects “no adverse finding” by the end of the process. FabriTec did not respond to requests for comment.
Juarez, a 34-year-old from Houston, didn’t return to SoFi Stadium after Juan’s accident. He said he constantly has nightmares about falling and no longer wants to work at heights; moving forward, he hopes to focus more on inspection work.
“When this happened, man, I lost my mind,” Juarez, the only known eyewitness, said. “I just lost it. I couldn’t believe what I’d just f—ing seen. I couldn’t stop crying. I just lost it.”
MIRNA ONTIVEROS WAS in the pool at her brother’s house on the morning of June 5, which qualified as a rare occurrence. Mirna, a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t drive, made it a point not to engage in recreational activities when Juan Becerra was gone for work, Lily Hernandez said. Superstitiously, she always feared something bad would happen. But Juan Jr. wanted to go swimming, so Mirna joined him alongside Juan’s two teenage daughters from a prior relationship, Karla and Julia Becerra.
When Juan’s sister called Mirna with the news, she collapsed to the floor and looked over at her son.
“I remember his little face,” Ontiveros said in Spanish. “He says, ‘Mommy, what happened to my dad?’ And he’s crying uncontrollably. I told him, ‘Son, Papi’s dead. Papi went with God.’ I had to hug him and tell him his dad wasn’t there, that he had an accident, that he wouldn’t be with us anymore, that he’s with God. But remembering the way he cried fills me with so much sadness because he’s just a little boy. And for him to hear me say that his dad had an accident, that his dad had fallen, that his dad was dead, and he’s telling me, ‘Mommy, what happened to my daddy?’ It destroyed my soul, even though it already was.”
“Every day I need him, every day I remember him. I don’t have peace.”
Juan’s widow, Mirna Ontiveros
Mirna nearly hyperventilated and needed medical attention that day. In the weeks that followed, she refused to eat and lost nearly 20 pounds in less than two months. Her family fed her meal-replacement shakes and worried she might need to be hospitalized. She lacked the energy to leave the house during the day and couldn’t stop herself from crying on most nights. Mirna comes from a deeply Catholic family, but lately she has questioned her faith. She’s getting counseling now, but more than six months have passed and she still doesn’t know what to do with herself.
“I need my husband every day,” Mirna said. “Every day I need him, every day I remember him. I don’t have peace. I don’t have peace. I know one day, with time, perhaps it’ll be different. I’ll need him, I’ll remember him, but it won’t hurt as much. Time will help, little by little. But right now it’s too hard.”
Mirna and Juan married in the fall of 2010, five years after one of Mirna’s four brothers introduced them. Mirna, a U.S. resident who expects to attain citizenship next year, says she was heavily reliant on Juan. He paid the bills, and he was also the one who took her out and planned vacations and gave her some semblance of a social life. Mirna poured herself into their son; Juan, Mirna said, handled practically everything else.
“He was the only person who would send me messages, the only person I would speak with over the phone,” Mirna said. “My phone no longer goes off. I don’t have friends. I don’t have anything. My son doesn’t have his father. I feel alone.”
JUAN BECERRA AND a couple of coworkers were living out of a four-bedroom house near the campus of USC and drove a rental car to work each day. Erickson Martinez was among them. He worked alongside Juan during their prior stint at SoFi Stadium, near autumn in 2019, and was with him again in late spring. This was the first stadium Juan had ever worked on, and because of its size and design, it just so happened to be among the most revolutionary.
“He was definitely proud of what he was doing,” Martinez said.
Martinez met Juan at the oil rigs when the work was far less glamorous. They’d drive into Houma, Louisiana, take a helicopter ride 300 miles out to sea and spend weeks living and working out of giant platforms. The rotations increased from 14 days to 28 days, with only seven days off in between. Juan, who commuted 11 hours from home, really got only five days with his family before returning to work. Their days began at 5 a.m. and ended whenever they were tired enough to fall asleep.
“The platform time, it’s just so slow,” another coworker, Chris Manjarrez, said. “You don’t see nothing but water for miles and miles.”
Juan was born in Valle Hermoso, in the northern part of Mexico, but was raised in Brownsville, a border town on the Gulf Coast in South Texas. His friends playfully called him “Cocho” and described him as a magnetic personality who was energetic, loud and easy to get along with. He loved traveling, loved grilling, loved woodworking, loved the Dallas Cowboys and loved his black Chevy Silverado Z71 pickup.
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“He was always such a happy person, man,” Manjarrez said. “Always in a good mood. He was just always full of energy and just always excited about everything, you know?”
Juan, Mirna and Juan Jr. spent the last few months of Juan’s life living out of a small efficiency unit connected to their house, which was rented out to another family. Juan was going to build two more, move back into the house, rent the units out for $650 a month and use it as a way to supplement his income while working locally. The SoFi Stadium job — $45 an hour, plus per diem — would be his last away from home.
“That’s the sad part,” Lily Hernandez said. “He didn’t want to be away from his son no more.”
Juan worked mostly as a rope access technician at the oil rigs, providing maintenance, paint and construction. He spent a large chunk of his first stint at SoFi Stadium cleaning debris off the roof cables, then was called back by a friend who told him they were looking for experienced workers. His second stint consisted mostly of installing clips to the roof’s panels.
When he died, a GoFundMe account was organized with the goal of raising $15,000 to help with funeral arrangements. It ultimately yielded $60,853. Jose Castillo, a close friend, gathered 28 coworkers from the oil rigs and raised an additional $4,000. He called Mirna to introduce himself and give her the news, but she was still in a vulnerable place at the time. She sounded defensive and annoyed over the phone; she told Castillo she didn’t need help from anybody.
“We’re not doing nothing to offend nobody,” Castillo recalled telling her, “but he was our brother.”
¿Quién lo empujo?
JUAN JR. IS is constantly wondering who pushed his father, and nobody ever knows what to say. Mirna Ontiveros says he’s a spitting image of her late husband. Sometimes Juan Jr. will repeat some of the vulgarities his father would blurt out and Mirna could swear that Juan was in the room again. She remembers those late nights when Juan Jr. would wait by the door for Juan to come home from work. She remembers how Juan Jr. used to wake him in the morning so they could play in bed. She remembers their soccer matches. She remembers how Juan Jr. would send Juan at least two videos a day to tell him he loved him.
“His father was everything to him.”
“His father was everything to him,” Mirna said in Spanish. “Everything. He’d call him ‘my king.’ He’d ask, ‘Where’s my king?'”
Juan Jr.’s energetic spirit stimulates Mirna, gets her going, gives her a reason to get out of the house and, perhaps eventually, move on with her life. But his innocent, childlike curiosity breaks her heart. Juan Jr. will ask why God felt the need to take Juan from him. He’ll ask why other kids can have fathers and he can’t. He’ll ask his cousins to dial his dad’s cellphone number to see if he’ll respond and cry when they refuse.
“How do I tell my son that his father isn’t going to answer him?” Mirna said, crying herself. “How do I tell him that his dad will no longer answer his calls? He gets really anxious sometimes because his father isn’t around.”
Lately, Juan Jr. has been asking about when they’ll return home. They’re staying in Reynosa, Mexico, about 50 miles away, with Mirna’s mother and one of her brothers. Mirna still can’t bring herself to return to Brownsville. It’s too painful. But she wants Juan Jr. to be raised in the United States. Eventually, she acknowledges, she must resume the life she led before Juan fell.
She thought seeing the stadium up close would function as an important first step; she hoped it might bring her the closure she needed to finally begin picking up the pieces. So she arrived with Juan Jr., Hernandez and one of the attorneys on the case, Houston-based Brian White, wearing the same personalized black T-shirt worn during Juan’s memorial. Juan Jr. sat on a nearby concrete bench and began fiddling with his Nintendo Switch. Mirna wrapped him in an extra jacket to stop him from shivering, then stared off into this glimmering facility, searching for something she could not place.
SoFi Stadium, a $5 billion venture funded by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, is open but not yet fully operational. At some point, once this country takes control of COVID-19, it will be packed with fans in a region that went more than two decades without the NFL. Eventually it’ll host the Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff National Championship, the World Cup and the Olympics, establishing itself as a preeminent landmark in one of the nation’s largest markets.
Life will plow ahead, SoFi Stadium will be celebrated, and Juan Carlos Becerra will sadly be forgotten, a small footnote tucked deep within the decorated history of an architectural marvel. But Mirna’s life will never be the same. She vowed to return someday, perhaps with flowers. Next time, she hopes to get closer.
“It hurts,” Mirna said as she left. “It hurts that I couldn’t be there for him.”