DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Two sewer workers who died while
repairing a leaky sewer line drowned, autopsies showed Tuesday.
Daniel Grasshof, 25, of St. Charles, Mo., and Brian Burford, 19,
of St. Louis, drowned in the water at the bottom of the sewer pit
after falling unconscious, Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. Francis
Garrity said.
He said toxic fumes from gases in the sewer may have contributed
to their deaths but was not the cause.
Garrity said he plans to ask fire officials for a sample of the
gases in the sewer for testing.
Five other workers were rescued by firefighters from the pit in
an industrial area on the city's east side. Authorities said they
inhaled a noxious gas, believed to be hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct
of sewage.
Five firefighters were also hospitalized.
City officials said Grasshof and Burford worked for Insituform
Technologies Inc., a company specializing in the repair of city
sewers.
"This is a tragedy for all of us," said Tony Hooper, the board
chairman, president and chief executive of Insituform, based in the
St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield. "We have to figure out what went
wrong at the job site to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Fire officials believe the hydrogen sulfide cut off oxygen to
the workers in the sewer.
"It appears that the two workers had been working in an area of
the sewer line that had water in its base," Assistant Chief James
Mason said. "This water had been stirred which emitted hydrogen
sulfide gas."
Hydrogen sulfide is a naturally occurring gas that is produced
by the decomposition of organic materials such as sewage, Mason
said.
It is heavier than air and displaces oxygen, Mason said.
The five injured workers remained hospitalized Tuesday.
Jimmy Johnson, 28, of St. Charles, Mo., was in critical
condition and Kent Broz, 32, of Hawk Point, Mo., was in fair
condition at Iowa Methodist Medical Center, hospital officials
said.
Jim Coffey II, 32, of Lincoln, Mo., was in serious but stable
condition at Mercy Medical Center, hospital officials said.
James Brown, 21, of Clinton, Mo., was in good condition at Iowa
Lutheran Hospital.
Mike Walkenhorst, 32, of St. Charles, Mo., was in good condition
at Mercy Capitol Hospital.
Five firefighters, who officials say were wearing response gear,
were overcome during the rescue and were taken to area hospitals.
Four of those firefighters were treated and released. The fifth
firefighter was being treated for a heat related injury.
The Rev. Randy Richmond, a priest with Holy Trinity Roman
Catholic Church, said he counseled two family members of the
injured and one co-worker at the scene. He described them as "very
distraught and in shock."
During what weather forecasters described as the hottest day of
the year, with a heat index of 104 degrees, emergency crews swarmed
the Nesbit Distributing Co., a beverage distributor.
Workers at the site were working on a city sewer line which runs
between the distribution plant and a railroad line.
Emergency responders descended the 15-foot ladder into the dark
sewer pipe to find the dead and the injured.
HazMat teams and emergency responders roped off the area at
least 200 feet from the entrance to the sewer pipe and pumped
oxygen into the tunnel.
"This is a heavy gas that hangs in the air - it doesn't
dissipate," said Emergency Management Service District Chief David
Keenan. "It dissolves the oxygen."
About two hours after firefighters were called at 2:22 p.m.,
HazMat teams had secured the area, said Linda Frangenberg, a
spokeswoman for the Des Moines Fire Department.
Acting Fire Chief Doug Rubin said the smell was "very pungent"
close to the hole.
"When they went down in the hole, they go down with hardhats
and lights, not necessarily any breathing equipment," Rubin said
of the workers. "This is something they do all the time. This is
obviously an oddity, what happened today."
Rubin said the crew had used air monitoring equipment to test
the atmosphere before entering the tunnel, but the environment
changed.
Mary Bryant, director of Iowa Occupational Safety and Health
enforcement, said her agency will investigate.
All the injured Insituform employees were from the St. Louis
area. The company, considered international experts in sewer and
water line repair, has worked for the city for several years.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press