Windsor Severance Fire Chief Says Wet Soil Hindered Trench Rescue
As rescue crews rushed Tuesday night to save the lives of two doomed construction workers trapped beneath the walls of a collapsed sewage trench, one factor kept getting in their way.
The soil was acting like wet concrete, said Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue Fire Chief Kris Kazian.
“Every time we took out a pail of dirt, two more pails would fall on them,” Kazian said. “Then we’d have to take out those two and another one would fall on them. So it’s one step forward, two steps back.”
Despite their efforts, first responders were unable to save the two men, later identified as Cristopher Lee Ramirez, 26, of Boulder, and Jorge Baez Valdez, 41, of Denver.
The Weld County Coroner is now investigating their deaths. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also opened an investigation into the incident.
The collapse occurred around 2 p.m. Tuesday, according to a statement on Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue’s Facebook page. The agency received a 911 call alerting them two men were trapped at a home construction site at 925 Camberly Drive in Windsor.
“Prior to WSFR arrival, workers on scene were able to get a PVC pipe to one of the workers,” the statement said. “The worker (was) in voice contact via the pipe with rescue crews throughout the incident.”
As emergency responders arrived, eventually numbering more than 50, the rescue team installed struts to keep the trench walls from collapsing any further, Kazian said.
It was a necessary step, he added, but it made it more difficult for the rescue team to work.
Only two or three people at a time could dig away at the collapsed earth inside the 15-foot-deep trench, he said. Photos show workers scooping the wet, thick earth with shovels the size of gardening tools and five-gallon buckets.
“Once you get down to where the patients are, you have be very careful,” Kazian said. “So using any power equipment, you could very easily create more harm to the person.”
The rescue team, which included at least 9 northern Colorado police, medical and fire agencies, also attempted to use a vacuum truck to help suction out debris. But that method proved unsuccessful.
“Had it been more of a light, sandy type soil it would have been very easy to remove and use the vacuum truck for,” he said. “But after we got to that clay, the truck doesn’t become effective.”
No voice contact with the second trapped worker was made during the rescue effort.
“But family members of the victim with whom crews were able to make contact with were able to talk to the victim with the use of specialized equipment before he passed away,” Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue’s statement said.
When emergency crews reached the trapped workers around 9 p.m., both were dead.
“While the outcome was not what we hoped for, the professionally trained personnel worked tirelessly to do everything we could and to do what we have all sworn to do,” Windsor Severance Fire Rescue’s statement said. “Our thoughts are with the families and co-workers of those affected.”
First responders disassembled the rescue apparatus within the trench Wednesday afternoon.
Trench collapses are uncommon, Kazian said.
“But they do happen,” he added. “We certainly train for this. We have specialty certifications for this type of rescue.”
Kazian didn’t know the workers’ employers, but he believed they worked for a local excavation company. KUNC was unable to confirm the men’s employers.
OSHA defines a trench as a narrow excavation made below the surface of the ground.
The agency’s manual on trenching and excavating safety says the work presents “serious” hazards to all involved. Cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are more likely to result in worker fatalities.
“One cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car,” it reads. “An unprotected trench can be an early grave. Employers must ensure that workers enter trenches only after adequate protections are in place to address cave-in hazards.”
This story has been updated.