Report: Series of events led to utility workers’ deaths

D.N. Higgins workers console each other following the deaths of three of their colleagues inside a 15-foot-deep drainage hole on Jan. 16 in the Key Largo Lake Surprise Estates subdivision.
D.N. Higgins workers console each other following the deaths of three of their colleagues inside a 15-foot-deep drainage hole on Jan. 16 in the Key Largo Lake Surprise Estates subdivision. The Reporter

Their eyes were “bloodshot and dark in color.”

That was the description given by first responders of three utility workers who were killed by noxious gases the morning of Jan. 16 inside a 15-foot-deep manhole in the Lake Surprise Estates subdivision in Key Largo, according to reports released last week.

Although Monroe County Sheriff’s Office detectives and the State Attorney’s Office determined nothing criminal led to the men’s deaths (see related story), the case is likely to end up in court. Investigations into the incident are still pending from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state Fire Marshal’s Office because since a Key Largo firefighter was almost killed trying to save the men.

Marc Lyons, an attorney representing the family of one of the deceased workers, Robert Wilson, 24, of Summerland Key, said he’ll likely file a lawsuit against Wilson’s employer, D.N. Higgins, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based underground utility contractor, after OSHA releases its findings.

“We are waiting patiently to review the OSHA findings prior to filing suit,” Lyons said this week.

D.N. Higgins was hired by Monroe County for $3.1 million to do road improvement projects in the area.

According to OSHA, the manhole in which the men died is a rainwater drainage system built many years ago over the mangroves using various fills when canals in the area were built. The mangroves are now decomposing and gases like hydrogen sulfide and methane are escaping through perforated pipes in these systems.

A detective wrote in his report that OSHA reported to him that “the county is concerned now with the levels of combustible gas in the drains.”

In the meantime, the newly released reports related to the tragic incident from Sheriff’s Office detectives shed light on what happened that day on Long Key Road. Kerby Brown, the men’s on-site supervisor that day, told detectives the following:

The crew was sent to Long Key Road to investigate a dip in the newly paved street. Brown believed the cause was fabric over the top of the drain that keeps dirt and gravel out. Before they could confirm this, the men had to check out the drain, so they lifted the manhole.

To push out any gas, they pumped water down the hole, then put a blower in there and opened side inlets for ventilation. But Brown told detectives he noticed something unusual. He told his crew to “pop the two inlets.” Brown then went to his truck to get more tools. He told detectives he instructed his men not to go into the hole “because the water stinks.”

But one of the men, Elway Gray, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, who Brown said is known as a diligent worker, went in anyway. Brown noticed Gray go in and ran back toward the hole. He saw Gray climb up the ladder gagging, and then fall back down the drain. Another crewman, Louis O’Keefe, 49, of Little Torch Key descended the hole to save his colleague.

“They work together, eat together, sleep together,” Detective Christian Kellenberger wrote in his report. “They are like family. They were risking their lives for each other.”

Both men were unconscious, knocked out by a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and methane. Kerby then went in to rescue his men. When he got to the bottom, he tried holding O’Keefe and Gray up, but he was struggling to stay awake in the cloud of invisible fumes. Men on the surface were screaming at him to get out. He had no choice but to let go of the men and ascend the ladder, but he blacked out halfway up. His men grabbed him and pulled him up.

That’s when Wilson went in, according to Kellenberger’s report. Another worker, Sheldon Doshi, tried to stop him “but Robert did not want to listen.” Doshi went in to get Wilson, but the fumes were too much for him. He managed to surface alive, but Brown said when he emerged, he “ran around like he was drunk.

“Sheldon just fell,” Brown told Wilson.

Brown said the last thing he remembers is Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Leonardo Moreno going into the hole sans his air tank. He, too, fell victim to the gas. He’s alive and back on duty, but only after being in a coma for a week and in recovery for months.

“The only thing Kerby remembers is the fireman going in the hole and the others having to pull him up with a rope,” according to the report. “That’s how bad it is. It happened so fast.”

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204