Florida Keys

3 men are poisoned to death in a trench, and unprepared rescuers are now on a mission

Leonardo Moreno is the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter who became seriously ill trying to save the lives of four utility workers trapped in a drainage hole in Key Largo on Jan. 16. He is pictured here helping Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Pedro Reinoso prepare a man suffering serious medical issues to board an ambulance on Aug. 5, 2015.
Leonardo Moreno is the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter who became seriously ill trying to save the lives of four utility workers trapped in a drainage hole in Key Largo on Jan. 16. He is pictured here helping Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Pedro Reinoso prepare a man suffering serious medical issues to board an ambulance on Aug. 5, 2015. Reporter

The Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department acknowledged it did not anticipate the type of scenario that took the lives of three underground utility workers on Jan. 16 and almost claimed the life of a firefighter who disregarded his own safety in a desperate attempt to save those men.

“It is true that neither of the fire departments which have served Key Largo over the last decade have had any significant training in trench rescue. Consistent with the practices throughout Monroe County, we train for the type of incidents reasonably anticipated,” Jack Bridges, the department’s attorney, said in a statement in response to a report released this week from the Florida Bureau of Fire Standards and Training Safety Section regarding the Martin Luther King Jr. Day tragedy that unfolded 15 feet beneath the streets of the Lake Surprise Estates subdivision.

“Following this incident, fire departments all over the county — including us — are now training in this type of rescue,” Bridges said.

One of the report’s key findings was the department lacked proper training for operating in confined spaces with potentially deadly gases present. The three workers, contractors for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Douglas N. Higgins Inc., died in rapid succession as they descended into the drainage ditch that morning to check out a dip in a newly paved road. The culprit was a deadly mixture of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

Higgins was tapped by Monroe County in 2015 to do road improvement work in the neighborhood for $3.1 million.

Firefighters Leonardo Moreno and Rafael Calante were the first emergency workers to arrive on Long Key Road, and were greeted by a frantic Higgins co-worker who told the first responders his colleagues were trapped below and were not responsive. Moreno and Calante were also told the hole was filling up with water.

Moreno, 32, an eight-year veteran of the department, was originally donning his self-contained breathing apparatus gear — an air tank on his back attached to a full face mask. But time was of the essence and he did not think he could fit through the manhole with his kit, so he dropped it and went in after the men unknowingly exposing himself to toxic fumes.

“We had no information about anyone becoming unconscious after entering. This is why we believe the firefighter felt it was safe for him to remove his breathing apparatus,” Bridges said. “We had never been notified that there was any hazardous ‘confined space’ activity going on in the area.”

Bridges added that in hindsight, gas readings should have been taken, but the men acted quickly on what their view of the situation was in order to save lives.

“That decision was based on the information provided upon initial fire department arrival,” said Bridges. “The firefighter was trying to save the life of a man believed to be drowning.”

Within seconds of reaching the bottom of the hole, Moreno was assaulted by the same noxious gases that killed Elway Gray, 34, Louis O’Keefe, 49, and Robert Wilson, 24. When Calante pulled Moreno out of the hole, he was “ashen gray,” not breathing and “pulseless,” according to the report released this week.

He was taken to Mariners Hospital, accompanied in the ambulance by Fire Chief Don Bock, who is also a paramedic and chief of the Key Largo Ambulance Corps. During the 15-mile drive south to the hospital, Bock provided “life-saving treatment” to Moreno, Bridges said.

Moreno was flown to a Miami hospital for treatment, which initially consisted of being placed in an induced coma for several days. Months passed before he was deemed healthy enough to return for duty.

Bridges said the department takes heed of the recommendations included in the state’s report, while he also praised the sacrifice made by Moreno that day, which he said demonstrates the dedication shown daily by the department’s rank and file and its leadership.

“KLVFD is proud of its firefighters and of the service we provide to the community. Part of our service is to constantly look for ways to improve,” Bridges said. “We take to heart the state fire marshal’s report and will use it to continue to build ourselves into the best fire department we can be.”

This article was originally published on flkeysnews.com.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204

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