July 12, 2017

KEY LARGO — An Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s report about the Long Key Road incident during which three D.N. Higgins’ contractors succumbed to poisonous fumes inside a storm drain could be days away from being issued.

The Jan. 16 incident claimed the lives of 24-year-old Robert Wilson of Summerland Key, 34-year-old Elway Gray of Fort Lauderdale and 49-year-old Louis O’Keefe of Little Torch Key.

Under the OSHA Act of 1970, the federal agency is mandated to release its findings within six months of a workplace fatality, or in this case, fatalities.

OSHA spokesman Michael D’Aquino said that D.N. Higgins must acknowledge receipt of the report before it can be made publicly available whether or not it has been found accountable for the men’s deaths.

The official process does add a few more days to the timeline, according to D’Aquino. It could take until next week for the public to learn what the investigation has yielded.

Also included in the listing of OSHA incidences filed under D.N. Higgins is McKenna Contracting, which operates under the auspices of D.N. Higgins, a Monroe County contractor hired for a road and stormwater drain project in Key Largo.

Kerby Brown was the supervisor on duty that fateful day and wasn’t an employee of Higgins, but rather of McKenna Contracting.

He told the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office detectives that he went to his truck just about 60 feet away to get tools so workers could enter a drain on Long Key Road to determine why the road was sagging.

By the time he got back, he said Gray had entered the manhole, setting off a chain of events that caused several to be overwhelmed by deadly gases that had accumulated inside the drain due to rotting vegetation.

Brown descended into the drain after it was ventilated in an attempt to rescue the others and managed to get out. He was taken to Mariners Hospital and released that day.

The police incident report shows that within 15 minutes of the drain lid being removed, between water pumped out and the ventilator hose being dropped in, five men descended the hole and only two survived.

But according to Marc Lyons, the lawyer for Wilson’s family, surveillance cameras from a neighbor’s house shows a 45-minute leisurely affair rather than the quick-moving chaos described in police records.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s report issued last month found the deaths of Gray, O’Keefe and Wilson to be accidental.

Brown told police that the proper procedures put in place by D.N. Higgins were not followed, and that the atmospheric measuring tool to determine gas levels was on the supervisor’s truck a block away.

The same OSHA Act that requires the agency release its records within six months also mandates that employers provide employment free from recognized hazards that could cause serious physical harm or death.

In March 2015, an OSHA inspection of a D.N. Higgins trench project in Key West resulted in two “serious” citations for lack of safety gear. Both fines were settled for $1,920.

Paramedics responded to a 911 call last September in the same Key Largo neighborhood where the road and drainage project was taking place.

The redacted police records indicate that a young male in his 20s was unconscious but still breathing after entering a storm drain. The young male refused medical transport. It’s unknown if the male was employed by D.N. Higgins.

On March 17, a complaint was filed with OSHA about a trench project at Allamanda Avenue and Arbutus Drive in Key West. D’Aguino refused to comment as that case remains open.

tjava@keysnews.com