A worker who may have removed his harness to reach a tight space on a sewer relining project was then swept to his death by flash flood waters in Chicago.
Gustavo Briceno Jr., 25, enjoyed his work but feared its hazards, his sister-in-law told the Chicago Tribune. "He loved his job, but he said that he worried something would happen to him," Imelda Alanis, 31.
Family photo via CBS
Gustavo Briceno, 25, left a wife and three young children. "That was his biggest fear, to die down there," his widow told CBS.
"He always said his workers would come up first in an emergency, and he would come up last."
Briceno and another worker were inside a 30-inch diameter pipe inside the sewer about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 18) when the area was hit by storms and flash flooding, authorities said. The men worked for Chicago-based Kenny Construction Co., a general contractor and subsidiary of Granite Construction Inc.
Briceno, a crew foreman, had been with the company since 2007.
The other worker was strapped into his harness and was pulled to safety, but Briceno had removed his harness to reach a confined space and was carried off by the water, news outlets said.
Briceno's team was working on an ongoing city project to line an old sewer to preserve its integrity, Water Management Department spokesman Tom LaPorte told the Chicago Tribune.
A search using a robotic camera ensued. Meanwhile, Chicago Police Department helicopter and marine units searched the Chicago River.
Briceno's body was found about two hours later, about a block away, clad in a wet suit.
'That Was His Biggest Fear'
Briceno's wife, Sandra Hernandez, told CBS Chicago on Thursday evening that she had learned about her husband's death from a Facebook post and had not heard from his employer at that point.
“This is not happening. I can’t believe it. I cannot,” Hernandez told CBS. "That was his biggest fear, to die down there.”
Kenny Construction Co.
Kenny Construction's Underground Group performs pipe, sewer and manhole lining, rehabilitation and other services.
Kenny Construction says that Briceno had listed his father (also a former Kenny employee) as his next of kin, and that the elder Briceno had been notified and brought to the scene immediately, where he remained all night.
Kenny Construction said in a statement that Briceno's death had had "a deep effect on everyone at Kenny," especially Briceno's colleagues in the "close-knit" Underground Group. The company's Underground Group focuses on trenchless and underground utility construction, performing pipe, sewer and manhole lining, rehabilitation and other services.
"The safety of our employees is our number-one priority," the company said. "Kenny has a long-standing, well- established safety program that encompasses training, detailed safe work plans including job hazard analyses for specific types of work and regular inspections."
The company said every underground worker "is certified in confined space training in accordance with the Occupational Safety Healthy and Administration Standards."
"All foreman [sic] and general foreman [sic] are each OSHA 30 hour certified and receive ongoing training as well. They are trained in a complete safety program that encompasses training, detailed safe work plans including Job Hazard Analyses for specific types of work, and regular inspections."
The company said that it monitors weather closely and that its protocol requires employees "to step away from the project any time there is a change in conditions."
Kenny Construction says it is "the only construction firm to win the National Safety Council's Green Cross for safety."
The company would not comment on whether Briceno had been wearing fall protection at the time of the incident.
OSHA has opened an investigation into the incident.
OSHA has inspected Kenny Construction several times since the company was cited and fined $175,000 for three deaths during a six-month period from 1996 to 1997, OSHA spokesman Scott Allen told the Tribune.
Since then, the company has been cited only for minor violations, he said.
"I would put them in pretty good standing with OSHA in the past 10 years," Allen told the newspaper.