Three years after the collapse of a stairway at a Folsom apartment building that plunged his friend three stories to his death, Charles Chueng can’t stop thinking about that moment – or the justice he says he hopes will be done in his friend’s name.
“For me, if I didn’t invite my friends (to the apartment) on that day, I would be the one to die. I feel very guilty about that,” Cheung said in an August interview. “It’s hard for me to even think about it. Justice hasn’t been done yet. I hope that justice will be done.”
Trial is expected to begin Sept. 17 in Sacramento Superior Court in the wrongful death and negligence suit against the owners of Folsom apartment complex The Legends at Willow Creek in the July 2015 death of Shun Xiang Yuan. “Chris” to his friends, Yuan was a graduate student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and his parents’ only son. He was 26.
Attorneys for Yuan’s parents say the development’s owners, San Francisco-based Gerson Bakar and Associates, and others responsible for the maintenance and safety of the 208-unit complex on South Lexington Drive ignored years of dry rot that compromised the wooden staircase that led to Cheung’s third-floor apartment with deadly consequences.
“You expect to be safe. It’s such a tragedy for these parents. They lost their only son,” said Mary Alexander, the attorney representing Yuan’s parents, Qixing Yuan and Yulin Ye. “They were living together. He was a master’s student at Cal Poly. It’s a terrible loss to them – and to the world.”
The Legends at Willow Creek LP in its documents denied the family’s claims. Attorneys maintain that Yuan’s family failed to present facts to support various victim, bystander and survivor claims and have called for the case to be thrown out.
Alexander’s filings described a summer’s day gone suddenly, horribly wrong. Cheung, Yuan and four friends had stopped by Cheung’s apartment to change before a trip to a nearby water park and then to Lake Tahoe.
Yuan was the last to descend the staircase when they all heard a loud noise. Alexander in her papers would call the staircase a “ticking time bomb.”
Yuan was thrown from the building and trapped under rubble. His friends were able to move away the crushing debris and perform CPR, but they could not save him. Yuan died a short time later.
Cheung says his friend took his place on the staircase.
““It’s just terrible – 99.9 percent it should’ve been me who walked down the stairs,” Cheung said. “All of us have suffered damage from that day – psychologically, emotionally – the five of us who saw the accident and tried to save his life.”
It was the second stairwell collapse in as many years at The Legends. In 2014 a staircase collapsed at the complex’s Building 7, next door to Building 8 where Yuan was killed.
“The 2014 stairway collapse provided defendants with specific knowledge that the stairways existed in a dangerous and unsafe condition for the tenants and their guests accessing them,” the complaint read. “Yet, defendants let the dangerous and unsafe stairway in Building 8 remain a ticking time bomb.”
Folsom building officials after the deadly 2015 collapse determined bolts used to secure the wooden stairs to the building pulled away from the deteriorating wood causing the stairs to give way underfoot.
“This company knew better and they just dragged their feet. This is a life safety matter,” Alexander said in an August interview. “When you have a catastrophic failure in 2014, you get it done. They could’ve shored up all the stairs at Willow Creek in two days, but they didn’t care about the tenants or the public.”
Cheung moved to The Legends at Willow Creek just months after the 2014 collapse.
He says he was never told of that incident and would not have moved into the complex had he known.
“I didn’t know what happened a year earlier. I didn’t know about it. They didn’t disclose anything,” said Cheung, who still lives in Folsom. If they had, he added, “I wouldn’t have even thought about renting the apartment. That staircase didn’t get fixed and it collapsed. I didn’t get that information and it directly caused my friend’s death. It’s just terrible.”