Florida Keys

Three men descend to their death, overcome by poisonous gas under the ground

A woman comforts a man at the site of Monday’s tragedy in Key Largo during which three utility workers died in a wastewater trench.
A woman comforts a man at the site of Monday’s tragedy in Key Largo during which three utility workers died in a wastewater trench. dgoodhue@keysreporter.com

An unimaginable tragedy struck in a small community of a few dozen homes on Long Key Road in the Florida Keys Monday morning, when three workers from a private contractor tasked with fixing a roadway climbed into a hole in the ground and, ultimately, to their deaths.

READ MORE: Firefighter is fighting for his life

By the time a Key Largo firefighter climbed into the same hole near Lake Surprise in a desperate attempt to save the men, they were dead. And within seconds, the firefighter was also overcome by poisonous gas and was fighting for his life.

The hole, just wide enough to fit a body and about 15 feet deep, was filled with hydrogen sulfide and methane gas created from years of rotted vegetation. It was so poisonous, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said, that the firefighter was unconscious within seconds.

“Neighbors were complaining about a sewage backup,” Ramsay said. “So they went to investigate.”

Ramsay’s description of the tragedy was like a stack of dominoes cascading downward. The first man, the sheriff said, removed a manhole cover and went underground. Then silence. A second man climbed down in search of his coworker and he, too, lost consciousness. Desperate, a third man climbed into the same hole and was immediately overcome by fumes.

None of the four men wore masks or carried the vitally important air packs that likely would have saved their lives. Ramsay said his detectives and workers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will investigate the deadly incident.

The deceased victims are Elway Gray, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Louis O’Keefe, 49, of Little Torch Key and Robert Wilson, 24, of Summerland Key, Herrin said. All three worked for a private Michigan-based roadwork contractor named Douglas N. Higgins The name of the firefighter has not been released.

“We pulled the unresponsive firefighter out with the help of two sheriff’s deputies. He was nonresponsive. Not breathing. They used CPR and revived him,” Ramsay said. “I believe he’s in a coma.”

Firefighters were able to remove two of the men’s bodies. A third was removed later in the day with the help of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Also taken to local hospitals were three Monroe County sheriff’s deputies who complained of dizziness. The neighborhood was ordered evacuated until determined safe.

“It’s been a very difficult day,” Ramsay said.

The Higgins employees, hired as sub-contractors by Monroe County, were looking into complaints from residents of backup in the sewage system. When checking the area on the Gulf side of U.S. 1, the workers found a slight dip in the ground near the manhole cover at the end of the street, said Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark.

Hydrogen sulfide can be especially dangerous if it accumulates at the bottom of poorly ventilated spaces. Ramsay said the hole showed no signs of having any ventilation.

Monroe County’s 911 dispatch got the emergency call about 8:30 a.m. Ramsay said the firefighter decided to enter the hole without his air pack because the hole was not wide enough to fit the man and his equipment.

Douglas N. Higgins is a private contractor with a Florida branch office in Naples, said Paul Christian, general manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.

In April, 2002, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection of a Higgins project in a Marco Island manhole resulted in a $2,500 fine that got settled for $1,875.

The citation said, among other violations, that atmospheric testing wasn't performed; a confined space entry program wasn’t implemented; confined space entry permits weren’t implemented by a qualified person; a rescue plan wasn't implemented; rescue services weren’t available in a timely manner; and rescue equipment wasn’t available at the site.

The company, which was founded in 1966 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has 17 projects in progress around Florida, three of them in the Keys.

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