Florida Keys

Firefighter sues employer of dead workers he tried saving

Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Leonardo Moreno became seriously ill trying to save the lives of 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.
Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Leonardo Moreno became seriously ill trying to save the lives of 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.

A Key Largo firefighter who came close to death trying in vain to save three underground utility workers felled by noxious fumes beneath a neighborhood street last January is suing those men’s employers for negligence.

Leonardo Moreno, 32, an eight-year veteran of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, did not hesitate before descending 15 feet into a manhole on Long Key Road in the Lake Surprise Estates subdivision Jan. 16 to save what he was told was one man drowning. When he reached the bottom, he quickly realized the situation was different, and far worse, than what he anticipated.

Two men were floating face-down in a couple of feet of water. Moreno turned them over and saw their faces were gray, “which [Moreno] knew to be a sign of recent death,” his attorney, Thomas Scolaro, wrote in the Nov. 21 lawsuit filed in Monroe County Circuit Court against Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Douglas N. Higgins LLC and its subcontractor McKenna Contracting LLC.

Moreno checked their vital signs and found no pulse. He found another employee also unconscious “leaning up against the out wall of the manhole,” Scolaro wrote.

The men — Elway Gray, 34, Louis O’Keefe, 49, and Robert Wilson, 24 — all died within minutes of entering the manhole. Gray went in first. Then O’Keefe trying to rescue an unresponsive Gray. Finally, Wilson went in desperate to save his co-workers. They were each hit like a bullet by a deadly combination of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

DN Higgins was working in the neighborhood as part of a $3.1 million Monroe County road improvement project. That morning, at around 8:30 a.m., Gray, O’Keefe and Wilson were trying to determine why the pavement on Long Key Road was not settling properly. The culprit, the men were told, was a leaking pipe in the manhole, according to the lawsuit.

Moreno was first on the scene with three other firefighters. He only survived because of the determination of his colleagues, one of whom donned an air mask, went down the hole and tied a rope to him so other firefighters could pull him up to the surface. They soon realized Moreno’s heart had stopped. It would be at least five minutes before it would beat again — after his colleagues shocked him with a defibrillator.

“His crew desperately attempted to revive him with chest compressions. [Moreno’s] sternum and L1 vertebra were both fractured in the process,” Scolaro wrote. Moreno’s lingering wounds include inhalation burns, respiratory disease, post traumatic stress, major depression and anxiety.

Moreno’s lawsuit claims DN Higgins and McKenna were negligent on several grounds, first by allowing Gray to enter the manhole without ventilating it first or checking it for gases. The suit, which seeks unspecified monetary amounts for physical and mental health damages, also claims Higgins and McKenna were negligent in not properly training its employees in working in confined spaces.

The suit also contends no one on the job site told the firefighters the men below ground succumbed to noxious gas. The responding firefighters were “at all times led to believe that this incident involved the drowning of a single individual as it was reported to the Key Largo Fire Department,” Scolaro wrote.

Moreno, according to his attorney, “was never informed or warned at any time by any individual or entity that noxious or dangerous gases were involved or present.”

Steve Cornman with the law firm Kubicki Draper was retained by DN Higgins. He did not return email and telephone messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in July cited DN Higgins with 10 violations totaling more than $100,000 in penalties over the incident, issuing a statement saying: “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”

OSHA’s July 18 report detailed lack of training, inadequate on-site equipment to test for hazardous gas and failure to provide emergency equipment to treat workers who are exposed to dangerous fumes.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204

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