Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Sheriff: Contractors' deaths accidental

KEY LARGO — The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has found no evidence to support criminal charges in the deaths of three county contractors who succumbed to toxic gases inside a stormwater drain on Jan. 16.

The department last week wrapped up an almost four-month investigation into the deadly Sexton Cove incident that claimed the lives of D.N. Higgins workers Elway Gray, 34, Louis O’Keefe, 49, and Robert Wilson, 24.

Detectives conferred on May 10 with the State Attorney’s Office, which agreed that no criminal charges were warranted.

“There are no criminal charges going forward at this time. These deaths were accidental,” Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay told the Free Press. “Yes, safety practices should have been used, the hole was supposed to be vented, there was a string of errors that led to this disaster and, unfortunately, the loss of life, but it was accidental.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s case remains open, according to OSHA spokesperson Michael D’Aquino, who said the agency has up to six months to complete its investigations and provide findings.

The sheriff’s office’s 43-page report reveals that one-by-one, and within minutes of each other, six men descended into the drain and only three survived.

According to the investigation, Gray entered the drain through a manhole to find out why the roadway was sagging after a recently completed road project and quickly fell victim to naturally occurring carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide gases.

Those who followed were trying to rescue Gray and subsequent workers who were overcome by the gases.

“It was like dominoes,” said one of the surviving contractors, Kerby Brown.

Ramsay said a Key Largo Fire Rescue meter measured levels of noxious gases high above what is considered safe.

A nearby home surveillance video, taken into evidence, shows the sequence of events. The fire department arrived at 8:43 a.m., about 15 minutes after the first contractor descended the drain.

The report reveals that by the time the fire department arrived, five men had descended and only two were able to maintain consciousness to get out.

Volunteer firefighter Leo Moreno also descended the drain without his air tank when he arrived and was overwhelmed by the gases before being rescued. He was revived through CPR and transported to the hospital, where he later recovered.

Paul Waters, a general manager with D.N. Higgins, told investigators that the crew was on Long Key Road to repair an indentation in the paved road and was not responding to complaints by residents of a smell. He said the workers were not supposed to go into the drain.

Brown told Detective Patricia O’Keefe that when workers were initially digging the area to install the stormwater drain, they noticed a bad odor. 

The detective wrote in her report that when the area was dredged to put in the canals, various fills were put over mangroves and these mangroves are now decomposing. Resulting gases, including hydrogen sulfide and methane, are escaping through perforated pipes, creating combustible and noxious conditions. These were among the gases that caused the men to perish, according to autopsy reports.

Despite the unusual smells, no gas measurement was taken before the workers entered the hole.

“The vehicle had tools and other work equipment; however, it did not appear to have any kind of gas measuring instrument, harnesses or other safety equipment to enter a manhole,” Detective O’Keefe wrote. “There did appear to be two generators near the hole. One appeared to pump liquids out of the hole, and the other appeared to be a large tube with a fan on the end to blow or extract air.”

According to Brown, the gas meter was on the supervisor’s truck at the next street over, and that between the time that the drain was being pumped of water and the supervisor was to return, no one was supposed to go into the hole.

The surveillance video shows that the water is pumped out for about seven minutes before Gray descends. About a minute later, his head appears for a second then disappears.

Brown and O’Keefe run to the hole and O’Keefe removes some clothing and descends within two minutes after Gray first entered. Seconds later, Brown removes some clothing and enters the hole.

Two men remain standing over the hole then scramble to ventilate it, three minutes after Gray initially went down. One of the men runs to a nearby house to call 911, and the water pumping hose is added back into the hole.

Wilson then arrives by car and goes immediately down into the drain, and seconds later, Brown comes out and lays on the ground directly next to the hole.

Sheldon Doshi, a worker from the project on the next street, arrives and goes down into the hole for four minutes before coming out and laying on the ground.

The video ends 15 minutes after firefighter Moreno enters the hole, but the report doesn’t detail any other events after he descends.

Moreno was cleared to return to work last week with the department, according to Fire Chief Don Bock. Bock also said the results of a state fire bureau investigation remain open.

D.N. Higgins’ representative Waters told detectives that proper protocol was not followed by the workers, but the families of the victims contend that the company apparently lacks safety equipment and did not provide proper training.

The company had previously been cited twice by OSHA for a lack of safety equipment on job sites.

The Free Press previously reported that redacted records from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, dated Sept. 6, 2016, indicate that an ambulance responded to Largo Road, which is in the same neighborhood where the road and drainage work was taking place. The report stated that a “man is passed out in a storm drain.”

That report also states it was a male in his 20s who was unconscious and breathing and who declined treatment. No other information is available.

The family of Robert Wilson has retained attorney Marc Lyons to file a wrongful death lawsuit against D.N. Higgins.

“I intend, on behalf of Robert Wilson’s estate, his family and friends, and the citizens of this community to prosecute this matter in order to prevent further tragedies that result from corporate irresponsibility,” Lyons said. “D.N. Higgins employs sons, brothers and fathers in this community and future tragedies are likely to happen again if this corporate behavior is unchecked. D.N. Higgins should not be awarded any additional public projects that are funded by this community until they take responsibility for this tragedy and take affirmative steps to protect its employees.” 

tjava@keysnews.com

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