UPDATE: OSHA investigating trench collapse at Summit Pointe Apartments

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 26, 2013 

Update (10:12 a.m.)

The U.S. Department of Labor confirmed Tuesday morning that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has opened an investigation into the Monday morning trench collapse at Summit Pointe Apartments.

Department of Labor Spokesman Lindsay Williams told The Ledger-Enquirer that an investigation into the safety standards at the site began Monday afternoon.

OSHA officials returned to the scene Tuesday morning, though OSHA can release no findings until the investigation is completed. That process can take up to six months, Williams said.

"Based on what (investigators) find they’ll cite the company for whatever safety violations that may have occurred," Williams said. "Then the company either has the option to accept the findings and pay the fines or they can go through an appeals process and state the reasons they think the findings are in error."

OSHA regulations require trenches more than 5-feet deep to be shored, a construction term for the process used to prevent collapses. Shoring techniques include using steel I-beams, plywood, hydraulic pistons or steel reinforcing bars to keep workers safe. This would include the bracing which Muscogee Coroner Buddy Bryan stated was missing from the construction site.

Although initially reported as 12-feet deep, further investigation found that the bodies of 50-year-old James Jackson and 46-year-old Allen Thomas were found once rescue workers dug to 18-feet deep. Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said the trench was 40-feet long and varied in width throughout.

"When it collapses, it's not going to be consistent," Shores said. "At some points, it was only a couple of feet wide, but at others it was much wider."

Fire Department rescuers worked diligently for almost eight hours to recover the victims after the collapse was initially reported at 10:54 a.m. Bryan told The Ledger that construction workers were using a tamper, or a machine that packs dirt, in the trench when it caved on the two workers.

Jackson and Thomas, who worked as independent contractors with Allen Development Company, were trapped as four other workers initially tried to help rescue them. Jackson's son, Mike, was working at a backhoe in the trench when his father was initially buried by up to 8 feet of dirt.

Shores said up to 30 rescue workers attempted to rescue the men during a long and arduous process, which included setting down bracing to prevent further collapse. The effort took multiple teams, and at one point, Fire Department officials had to ask for shoring supplies from 84 Lumber Company on Hilliard Rome Road.

"We had to have them escorted in," Shores said. "It's a lot of technical hard work."

The men's bodies were reached at about 4 p.m. Rescuers continued to dig after their death was announced, finally recovering them at about 6:20 p.m.

Jackson and Thomas' bodies will be transported to Atlanta for autopsies Wednesday, Bryan said Tuesday morning.

The laboratory where the autopsies are performed told the Coroner's Office they were temporarily filled Monday, leading to a delay in the autopsies.

Update: Crews have recovered the bodies of two Columbus construction workers smothered when a 12-foot-deep trench collapsed at the Summit Pointe Apartments on Williams Road.

Coroner Buddy Bryan said James Jackson, 50, and Allen Thomas, 46, were working with a tamper packing dirt within the trench when the surrounding soil fell in on them. He said the sides of the trench were not braced to stabilize them.

Four other workers escaped unharmed from the trench, which Bryan said was about 10 feet wide and 25 feet long.

He said Thomas lived at 1700 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., No. 6, and Jackson lived at 3122 Mead Street. Jackson’s son Mike was working on a backhoe at the construction site, and tried to remove some of the collapsed dirt, but workers were not sure where the two men were trapped, Bryan said.

Six to eight feet of dirt buried the two, Bryan said.

Crews trying to rescue the men had to brace the sides of the trench to prevent another cave-in, and then carefully dig it out with shovels and five-gallon buckets to reach the workers, the coroner said.

Authorities said the initial 911 call came in at 10:54 a.m. Bryan said crews reached the men at 4 p.m., and still worked to remove them after determining both were dead. Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said the bodies were recovered around 6:20 p.m.

The men were independent contractors working with Allen Development Company, which belongs to Bud Allen.

“We’re just all grieving,” Allen said. “All of these people are family.... We’ve known them forever — just great guys and a real tragedy. In 30 years, I think we had a guy get a hernia one time, but never on one of our construction sites have we had someone get hurt.”

The first phase of the Summit Pointe Apartments at 3071 Williams Road has been completed. A second phase is under construction. Bryan was unsure of the trench’s purpose, but noted concrete pipes were assembled nearby, awaiting installation.

Shores said firefighters from Station 1, 3 and 8 went to the scene, arriving two minutes after the call. About 20 rescuers were at the site, he said.

Bryan said the tamping machine was still running when firefighters got there.

Shores remarked on the precarious nature of such rescue attempts.

“It is still a very unstable operation,” he said. “When you’re performing a trench rescue, there are several variables you have to deal with. You have to get the other would-be rescuers out of the trench so they don’t become victims. And you have to secure the walls so you don’t have further collapse.”

He said factors typically leading to a collapse are the type of soil, its compaction and the lack of a retaining wall.

Tim Chitwood wrote this report. Tiffany Stevens and Tony Adams contributed to this report.

Here are today's earlier reports:

The Muscogee County Coroner said Monday afternoon the two construction workers that were trapped in a trench have been pronounced dead.

Coroner Buddy Bryan named the deceased as James Jackson, 50, from 3122 Mead Street in Columbus, and Allen Thomas, 46, from 1700 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. No. 6 in Columbus. The men were in a trench that the coroner estimated at 12 feet deep. Bryan said it was about 10 feet wide and 25 feet long.

According to the coroner, they were using a tamper (a machine that packs dirt) and the side's of the trench were not braced. When it began to collapse, there initially were six workers in there but four got out.

Six to eight feet of dirt buried the two men, Bryan said. Jackson's son, Mike, was working on site and allegedly saw it happen. They tried to do some emergency extraction, but they were unsure where the men were.

Since then they have been carefully trying to get to them while bracing the sides of the trench to keep it from further collapsing. They have not removed the bodies as of 4 p.m. but Bryan said he could tell they were deceased with cause of death as asphyxiation.

The crew worked with Allen Development Company, which belongs to Bud Allen.

"We’re just all grieving," Allen said. "All of these people are family."

"They were independent contractors. We’ve known them forever. Just great guys and a real tragedy. In 30 years, I think we had a guy get a hernia one time, but never on one of our construction sites have we had someone get hurt."

Original story: Officials said Monday afternoon that two victims are trapped in a trench at Summit Pointe Apartments on 3071 Williams Road.

Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said there is ongoing construction near the back of the complex when the trench collapsed and trapped two victims.

The call was placed at 10:54 a.m. Units from Station 1, 3 and 8 are on the scene to assist, arriving about two minutes after the call. About 20 rescuers are working the scene.

Shores said they can't confirm how deep the trench is or where the victims are in the trench, but the rescue officials are at least 12 feet deep conducting the search. They were unable to provide any information about whether the victims are communicating with officials.

Only residents and rescue crews are being allowed to enter the complex.

"It is still a very unstable operation," Shores said. "When you're performing a trench rescue, there are several variables you have to deal with. You have to get the other would-be rescuers out of the trench so they don't become victims. And you have to secure the walls so you don't have further collapse."

Shores said typical factors leading to a collapse are type of soil, compaction of the soil and lack of a retaining wall.

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