Florida Keys

‘No criminal elements’ after 3 men die in a manhole filled with noxious gas

A woman comforts a man on the Key Largo site of the Jan. 16 death of three utility workers. They were overcome by fumes after they entered a 15-foot-deep storm drain in the Sexton Cove subdivision.
A woman comforts a man on the Key Largo site of the Jan. 16 death of three utility workers. They were overcome by fumes after they entered a 15-foot-deep storm drain in the Sexton Cove subdivision.

No state criminal charges will be filed against a Michigan-based utility company that lost three employees to deadly fumes inside a Key Largo manhole in January.

A Key Largo firefighter almost lost his life trying to save the fallen workers that Jan. 16 morning

The State Attorney’s Office reviewed Monroe County Sheriff’s Office investigators’ reports about the incident on Long Key Road in the Sexton Cove subdivision and determined earlier this month that “there are no criminal elements in this case,” Detective Christian Kellenberger wrote in his May 8 report.

Elway Gray, 34, of Fort Lauderdale, Louis O’Keefe, 49, of Little Torch Key and Robert Wilson, 24, of Summerland Key, worked for D.N. Higgins, an Ann Arbor, Michigan company hired by the county in 2015 for $3.1 million to do road-improvement work in Sexton Cove. One by one, they were overcome by toxic fumes as they entered the 15-feet-deep hole that morning.

The county Medical Examiner released autopsies for the three men on May 4, which concluded each of them died from “acute asphyxia due to inhalation of noxious gas.”

Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue hazardous-material crews, who were called in to help Keys first responders that day, determined the unventilated hole was filled with hydrogen sulfide and methane.

Higgins executives told detectives that the men went underground to investigate an indentation in the road, although some people living in the neighborhood said they were there to check out a lingering smell in the area.

Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighters Leonardo Moreno and Rafael Calante were the first on the scene. Moreno factored he could not fit through the hole donning his self-contained breathing equipment, so he went in without it, determined to save the men. That decision almost cost him his life. He too was quickly taken by the fumes and had to be rescued by Calante.

Moreno was in an induced coma for almost a week, and it was months before he was cleared to report back for duty.

The incident is also being investigated by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the state Fire Marshal. Those agencies have not yet released their findings.

This is a developing story.

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