Family mourns Cherry Hill construction site victim

Jose David Ortega. Death accidental, early finding says.
Jose David Ortega. Death accidental, early finding says.
Posted: June 25, 2014

A photo from 2004 shows Jose David Ortega standing triumphantly at the site of a housing complex in Williamstown. He is wearing a tool belt and a backward cap, with a pile of wood beams to the left, a freshly erected home in the background.

"He enjoyed [seeing] the house finished," said his mother, Odily Castro, in her East Camden home Monday.

Ortega, 40, who went by his middle name, took delight in his work - completed houses, solid cement at his feet, his two young sons by his side. So his death last week while demolishing a former Blockbuster store in Cherry Hill struck a chord of awful irony in the hearts of those close to him.

"For someone to lose their life at a workplace," said Francisco Baltodano, 31, a relative, "I'm still in disbelief."

Ortega was the sole fatality in the collapse on Route 38 on Friday, several miles from the home he shared with his mother. Workers were nearly done razing the building just after noon, making way for a Super Wawa, when a cinder-block wall and metal roof collapsed, officials said. Another worker was hospitalized with chest pains.

Castro had talked to her son by phone about 8 a.m. that day. He was busy, she said, and promised to talk with her later that afternoon.

About 3 p.m., authorities knocked on the family's Terrace Avenue home and notified her of the death. The accident remains under investigation by local and federal officials, but the Camden County Prosecutor's Office said preliminary findings indicated the death was accidental.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Mancuso Contractors Inc. was the subcontractor that had employed Ortega, a day laborer, for two weeks. Carl R. Pursell Inc. of Berlin was the contractor.

Mancuso, of Maple Shade, did not return a request for comment Monday.

At Castro's home, family members said no company officials had called them since the collapse. Mourners struggled to deal with the unexpected death, as photos of Ortega and his two sons - Louis, 6, and Christian, 12 - rested above a sealed brick fireplace.

Castro held up a nearly full soup container of soda-can tops - a collection Ortega conducted on his own to benefit the Ronald McDonald House. "He had a good heart," the 60-year-old said, her English intertwined with her native Spanish.

Castro remembered taking her only child, then 9, to America, fleeing Nicaragua's capital, Managua, and a revolutionary war being waged in the country.

"I loved my son," Castro said, her pearl earrings dangling as she leaned forward. He was in the process of trying to acquire legal citizenship, she said.

Ortega had played baseball growing up in Camden and closely followed the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees. He enjoyed cooking, family members said, and loved steak and spaghetti. His left arm sported a cross tattoo for his late grandmother Rosa Castro.

Ortega took construction jobs when they were available and also worked until recently in Pennsauken's Delta Paper plant for about four years. He packed and labeled packages for the company, which manufactures industrial and food paper products.

Terry Jenkins, plant manager, said: "He was [always] talking about his kids and how much he cared for and loved his mom."

"He would say hi to everyone," said Bill Foley, Delta's inside sales manager. "Of course everyone was sad and upset."

He added: "Those who didn't know found out today."

On Friday, the family will hold a memorial service at 7 p.m. at the First Spanish Baptist Church, 6634 Chandler Ave., Pennsauken. A service Saturday at 9 a.m. at the church will precede burial at Morgan Cemetery in Cinnaminson.


afichera@philly.com856-779-3917

@AJFichera

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