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One dead in trench collapse

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By Kathi Bliss

Editor/POST-REGISTER

 

Authorities continue to investigate a construction collapse that left an Edna man dead last Wednesday morning.

The project was well-known to resident in the neighborhood, and parents who drive their children to Lockhart Junior High School every day. Working under a private contract

with a developer, Edna-based Mercer Construction was excavating to set a sewer line for an incoming residential development . Tragedy struck just before noon on Wednesday, when what was reported as a 13-foot hole collapsed on the workers, trapping two beneath untold amounts of the area’s blackland soil.

According to witnesses on the scene, one individual was buried up to the waist. That worker, who was not identified by authorities, was freed from the rubble and transported by helicopter to an area hospital, where the Lockhart Police Department reports he was released from treatment by Thursday.

Lockhart Fire Department Chief Joseph Gorman credits several members of his staff with their work and efforts to save the first victim. He gave a special nod to firefighters Adrian Almendarez, Esteban Ortega, Jim Rodriguez and Ryan Van Hee, as well as Captain Zach Boydston, for their efforts, not only in the rescue, but their continued presence and assistance on the scene for the recovery.

The second victim, identified later as 22-year-old Nathan Fryday, was overtaken by the collapse, eventually losing his life as rescue efforts pressed forward.

Using a combination of hand-tools and heavy equipment, rescue workers and construction-crew members carefully cleared the debris to free the first victim. The tragedy was compounded, shortly after the release of the first victim, when the hole caved back in on itself, further hindering efforts to pry Fryday’s body loose.

He was finally freed several hours later, and pronounced dead at the scene by Caldwell County Justice of the Peace Matt Kiely.

Meanwhile, Lockhart police and the administration from Lockhart ISD scrambled to reroute traffic and notify parents that the accident would cause Clear Fork Street to be closed, snarling student pick-up traffic from both Bluebonnet Elementary School and Lockhart Junior High School.

Not long after the collapse, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) arrived on scene to begin their investigation into the collapse. Though the results of that investigation may not be available for several months, witnesses on the scene said that Mercer Construction may not have followed industry standards at the site.

“I wasn’t on scene immediately, but when I got there, I didn’t see how they had shored up the hole when they were digging it,” said Chisholm Trail Fire-Rescue Chief Mark Padier. “And I knew that if we were going to go forward safely, we had to do something to reinforce it.”

He contacted Lockhart True Value; manager Bill Morgan immediately loaded plywood and reinforcing material into his personal vehicle and delivered it to the scene, Padier said. That assistance allowed the recovery efforts to move forward safely, he noted.

“I’m not sure what happened, or how it collapsed,” he said. “All I know is that I couldn’t send any of our people down there without making sure that we had it shored up, because the last thing we needed was for it to go down again with the rescue workers down there.”

Soil experts speculate that recent weather shifts may have destabilized the ground in the area, creating conditions that increased the threat of the collapse.

Work on the utility line has not recommenced since the accident.

Earlier this week, OSHA issued a warning, and proposed fines upwards of $121,000 against an Austin-based company accused of not providing adequate protection systems in a similar trenching project in April. In that case, an inspection took place before tragedy struck.

“There are roughly 54 fatalities associated with excavations every year, such as the one that happened in Lockhart last week because employers failed to take the necessary measures to keep them safe,” said OSHA’s Austin-area director Casey R. Perkins. “These employers knew better, and they are fortunate we inspected them before any of their employees were injured or killed.”

Though OSHA could not release preliminary findings on the Clear Fork Street incident, a spokesman told the Victoria Advocate last week that monetary penalties and citations could follow for Mercer, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Lockhart City Manager Vance Rodgers said the company was working under contract with a private developer, and was not working for the City of Lockhart.

Mercer Construction principals could not be reached for comment.

Services for Nathan L. Fryday, 22, were held on Sunday, Sept. 4. Fryday is survived by his parents, his fiancé, a brother, his grandparents, and several aunts and uncles.

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