Feds: Key Largo utility workers ‘needlessly lost their lives’

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. David Goodhue The Reporter
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. David Goodhue The Reporter

The United States Department of Labor cited a Michigan underground utility company with 10 violations totaling more than $100,000 in penalties for the deaths of three workers who were killed by noxious fumes 15 feet beneath a Key Largo subdivision street on Jan. 16.

Among the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s chief findings in its July 18 report was that the company, Douglas N. Higgins, Inc., did not ventilate the manhole before its workers entered it and were rapidly overcome by lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

“The hazards of working in manholes are well established, but there are ways to make it safe,” Condell Eastmond, the OSHA area director in Fort Lauderdale, said in a statement. “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”

The report also details lack of training, inadequate on-site equipment to test for hazardous gas and failure to provide emergency equipment to treat workers who are exposed to dangerous fumes. Telephone messages left with Douglas N. Higgins Naples office and its attorney, Steve Cornman, Tuesday afternoon were not immediately returned.

Elway Gray, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Louis O’Keefe, 49, of Little Torch Key and Robert Wilson, 24, of Summerland Key, were killed one-by-one, each not knowing what waited for them as they descended into a toxic underground cloud. They worked for Higgins, which was contracted by the county in 2015 for $3.1 million to do road-improvement work in the Lake Surprise Estates subdivision.

Gray went in the hole to check out a dip in the recently-repaved Long Key Road. When he didn’t come up and didn’t respond to his colleagues’ calls, O’Keefe went in to get him and was killed almost instantly.

The cruel scenario played out a third time, with Wilson risking what turned out to be certain death to save his colleagues. A fourth man, Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter and EMT Leo Moreno, was almost the next to die.

Moreno and his colleague Rafael Calante were the first emergency workers on the scene. Moreno factored he could not fit through the hole carrying his self-contained breathing equipment on his back, so he went in without it. But it was quickly demonstrated that he was no more impervious to the fumes than the men he risked everything to save. He had to be rescued by Calante, who was able to fit through the manhole entrance donning his breathing gear.

Moreno survived, but that outcome was far from certain, especially in the days immediately following the tragedy. Doctors placed him in an induced coma for almost a week, and it was months before he was cleared to report back for duty.

The county Medical Examiner released autopsies for Gray, O’Keefe and Wilson on May 4, which concluded each of them died from “acute asphyxia due to inhalation of noxious gas.”

Higgins, and a subtracting firm, McKenna Contracting, LLC, face fines totaling $119,507. Michael D’Aquino, an OSHA spokesman, said it’s possible the fines could be reduced if the companies demonstrate they’ve remedied or are in the process of remedying the violations.

“These proposed violations could be reclassified,” D’Aquino said Tuesday.

Higgins and McKenna have 15 working days to reply to the citations. They have three choices at this point. They could pay the full fine; Request an “informal conference” with OSHA to show evidence that some of the violations have already been fixed and the penalties should be reduced; Or, the companies could contest the citations with OSHA’s review board.

The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office in May determined that the incident did not warrant any criminal charges against Higgins and McKenna. Prosecutors based that decision on an investigation by Monroe County Sheriff’s Office detectives.

The state Fire Marshal also investigated the incident and is expected to release its findings this month, said Jon Moore, acting press secretary for the Florida Department of Financial Services. The Division of State Fire Marshal falls under Financial Services department.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204