Florida Times Union-Metro Section

Saturday, August 31, 2002

Last modified at 10:34 p.m. on Friday, August 30, 2002
By Veronica Chapin
Times-Union staff writer

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's Special Operations unit was dispatched yesterday to rescue three construction workers who had been overcome by oxygen deprivation while working in a manhole at the intersection of Arbor Lane and Laurel Road. Three construction company workers in Jacksonville were on life support last night after being overcome from oxygen deprivation while working in a manhole in San Marco.

Police said it appeared at least one safety requirement had not been followed.

Hilario Martinez, 32, Tony Mathews, 29, and Greg Andrews Jr., 20, were transported to Baptist Medical Center in critical condition. Martinez and Mathews are from Jacksonville. Andrews is from Yulee and celebrated his birthday on Wednesday, officials said.

The men were inside the precast concrete manhole for an undetermined amount of time before fire and rescue units arrived 10:27 a.m., said Tom Francis Jacksonville fire department spokesman.

The oxygen level at 10 feet down where the men were found was about 16 percent. Anything below 19.5 percent is considered oxygen deficient, fire officials said.

It took the department about 30 minutes to perform the confined space rescue at the Arbor Lane and Laurel Road location.

Homicide Sgt. Randy Justice said Martinez was overcome first, then two other workers went inside, each to retrieve the other. "Basically the three men were entangled within themselves in the hole," said firefighter Randy White. "Normally we would not go into a manhole with three people inside."

White and two other firefighters went into the hole. A rope harness was used to secure the men to a ladder before they were hoisted to ground level.

A permit to enter confined spaces is required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but Justice said no permit was issued for the three workers.

It also is recommended that a harness be used or placed near the hole for emergencies. Because of the dangers, other workers are not supposed to enter the space to aid a co-worker.

"None of that was done," Justice said.

The men work for a subcontractor, Jensen Civil Construction, which was hired by JEA to check seams inside the sewer line, Francis said.

Jensen officials declined yesterday to answer any questions or comment beyond addressing concern for their employees welfare.

The company has been inspected five times since 1998 by OSHA officials, according to the agency's Web site. On two separate occasions, officials cited the company for a total of seven serious violations.

Records from a February 2001 inspection were deleted, but fines totaled $4,950. During a June 1999 inspection, inspectors cited the company for violating general requirements of excavations and protective systems requirements of excavations for a fine of $6,000.

OSHA officials on the scene yesterday declined to discuss the incident. There was no indication of toxic materials or gases inside the pipes, and an investigation is being done to determine why there was oxygen depletion within the confined space, Francis said. It was not immediately clear what else was in the tank.

Oxygen deficiency can be a risk at any depth, JEA spokesman Bruce Dugan said. A worker might be standing with his head near the surface, bend down briefly to pick up a dropped tool and enter a danger zone. The lack of oxygen then makes the worker pass out, leaving him helpless in the oxygen deficient area and out of arm's reach from those above.

Crews also are required to carry meters to check for explosive gases and the oxygen level in the confined space they are working, Dugan said.

No criminal charges were filed, and detectives were taking statements from the other two men in the work crew.

Staff writers Kristen Moczynski and David Bauerlein contributed to this report.

Staff writer Veronica Chapin can be reached at (904) 359-4161 or via e-mail at vchapinjacksonville.com.