A wave of sorrow and disbelief staggered government agencies, construction companies and private utilities after two men died May 3 in a Boise trench collapse.
The emotion of those tense hours is particularly evident in dozens of emails between Ada County Highway District employees and elected commissioners.
The incident appears to have taken an especially heavy toll on two employees: inspection coordinator Jim Pickard and Randy Abbott, an inspector. Pickard knew both of the men who died, according to an email from Deputy Director of Maintenance Tim Morgan. Pickard and Abbott often crossed paths with the two men, Bert Smith Jr. and Ernesto Saucedo-Zapata, on excavation projects in the highway district’s rights-of-way, spokesman Craig Quintana said.
“Jim said Randy is rough and Jim didn’t sound much better,” Morgan wrote in an email to highway district Director Bruce Wong and Bruce Mills, deputy director of engineering, at 9:43 p.m. on May 3. “Bruce M, you might want to check on them.”
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Karen Strauss, supervisor of development review and Pickard’s superior, offered support.
“You are doing an amazing job with this tragedy,” Strauss said in an email the morning after. “Very proud to have you on the team, Jim.”
The Idaho Statesman obtained the district’s emails through a public records request. The district declined requests for follow-up interviews.
The collapse occurred in the late afternoon of May 3 near the corner of Hill Road and Gary Lane. Highway district and city of Boise records indicate a crew for Hard Rock Construction, a Meridian excavation company, was digging a trench for a sewer line that would connect to four future homes on the southeast corner of those roads.
Efforts to contact a Hard Rock representative for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
A district employee visited the trench hours before the collapse, spokeswoman Nicole Du Bois said. The employee spoke with “someone from the crew ... regarding that which we regulate — time, place and impact on our right-of-way,” Du Bois said. District officials declined to comment further on the nature of that conversation.
One worker survived after he was removed from the trench and was treated at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise. The extent of his injuries is unknown, though he has been released from the hospital.
By mid-morning May 4, the district had backfilled the trench and paved over it with asphalt, Quintana said.
Pickard clearly appreciated the way highway district leaders responded to the trench collapse.
“I cannot say enough about the professionalism that was displayed this evening after this tragic event,” he wrote in a 1:33 a.m. email to Morgan. “When we spoke and you said ‘whatever they need, we will do’ speaks volumes to what ACHD is about. The owner of Hard Rock was traumatized and when he said ‘he didn’t know what to do next and that he didn’t want to be around the trench’ and we were able to tell him ‘we will take care of everything,’ the look of appreciation on his face was indescribable.”
Quintana said Pickard and Abbott “are doing well and are now well beyond the initial shock of the event.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, is investigating the incident. In general, proper safety measures avoid deadly trench incidents, said Dave Kearns, the agency’s director in the Boise area.
Kearns would not say whether proper safety measures were in place before the May 3 incident. Highway district officials also declined to comment, but their emails hint at a safety lapse.
“The sad part is that it all could have been prevented by following standard operating procedures,” Director Bruce Wong wrote in an email to the district’s five commission members. “I have spoken with all (district workers who went to the site) and we are watching them very closely as emotions are running high.”
Kearns said cave-in protection is required for any trench more than 5 feet deep. The most common approach is a trench box, a metal brace with two walls held apart by spreaders.
Since the May 3 incident, many have speculated that Hard Rock’s crew wasn’t using a trench box, though investigators haven’t said so publicly.
“I can’t believe that in this day they didn’t have a trench box,” Roger Greaves, director of engineering for Suez, which provides water service in and around Boise, wrote in an email the morning of May 4 to highway district utility coordinator Greg Fullerton, who had asked if the dig was related to a Suez project. It wasn’t.
But Greaves’ comment was based on what he’d heard from other sources, including media reports, not firsthand knowledge, Suez spokesman Mark Snider said.
A HARD LESSON
The trench collapse also served as a wake-up call for excavation and construction experts across the Treasure Valley.
“This is a very strong reminder how important it is to be SAFE out there,” Strauss said the morning of May 4 in an email to highway district staff.
Snider said Suez has a detailed safety policy in place to reduce injuries to its workers. That policy includes a pre-job safety analysis of potential hazards, whether the crew is dealing with a trench, a crane or pressurized chemicals.
The plan is reviewed every day, Snider said, and any worker can stop a job at any time if he or she has a safety concern.
The May 3 incident caught the attention of people at the city of Boise, too, especially the one city crew that digs trenches, spokesman Mike Journee said.
“They take that stuff very, very seriously and they don’t ever cut corners,” Journee said.