Washington State authorities are investigating the harrowing ordeal of a sewer worker who was swept 3,500 feet through an underground pipe full of sewage after he briefly unhooked his safety lanyard while inspecting the system.
The 37-year-old worker, who was not identified, was eventually pulled to safety at the Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant near Tacoma, WA, after he grabbed a grate where the six-foot-diameter pipe narrowed to four feet, authorities said.
‘He’s So Lucky’
The man remained conscious throughout the incident, suffered only minor injuries, and returned to work later this week, his employer said.
“He’s so lucky,” said Hallie McCurdy, spokeswoman for West Pierce Fire & Rescue, which responded to the scene.
Frank Coluccio Construction Co.
Coluccio Construction’s services include sewer
relining. This project photo is from the company’s
The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries is investigating the incident, which involved an employee of Seattle-based Frank Coluccio Construction Co.
‘Immediately Lost Footing’
The episode began at 7:59 a.m. Monday (March 21), when the fire company responded to a call for a swift water rescue. The crew was doing prep work for relining the pipe with a smaller fiberglass pipe insert. The line collects all the wastewater flow from Pierce County and carries it to the treatment plant.
Ray Clouatre, corporate safety director at Coluccio Construction, told PaintSquare News that a five-member crew had been working in an 85-foot-deep shaft (two topside, three in the shaft). One worker was sent into the pipe, which had live sewage flowing through it.
“They had worked in the pipe many times before,” Clouatre wrote in an email. “The flow of sewage was ankle to thigh high, depending on time and location, so workers were required to wear a harness and lanyard and tie off to a cable attached to a winch in the shaft when entering.
“This worker tied off to the cable and entered the pipe. He went into the pipe to inspect some work. He got as far as the cable would let him go.
“He wanted to see something a few feet further, so he unhooked his lanyard. He immediately lost his footing and fell down, and the flow carried him down pipe.”
Search and Rescue
Co-workers in the shaft saw the accident and immediately reported it to the foreman.
“Crews went to the next manhole in line, where a ladder had been installed to catch a person in case this ever happened,” Clouatre reported.
“The worker in the pipe got to that location before the crew arrived, though. The worker grabbed the ‘mancatcher,’ but the flow was strong and there was just enough room below it that he slipped under it and continued down pipe.”
Meanwhile, a county crew working at the plant downstream was notified and began opening manholes farther down.
Eventually, Clouatre said, the worker was able to stop himself and wait. “He saw a manhole opened in front of him and a Pierce County worker down in it. He made his way to that location and was then pulled out” by his co-workers and by some on the county crew.
The dark, half-mile trip lasted about 30 minutes. Part of the system runs 150 feet underground, fire officials said.
‘Great Worker,’ ‘Bad Call’
The man ended up about 300 feet from where the sewer line empties in to the treatment plant.
“If the worker hadn’t stopped himself, he would have gone into the plant, where screens sift debris from wastewater as it moves into the plant to be treated,” reported the Tacoma-Seattle News Tribune. “That’s where the man’s hard hat ended up.”
The worker was treated at the hospital for “a few cuts, scrapes, and a broken tooth” and “is okay,” Clouatre said.
Clouatre called the employee “a great worker” who had “just wanted to accomplish his assigned task.” The worker made “a bad judgment call,” Clouatre added. “He should have returned to the shaft, got a longer lifeline, and then returned to the pipe.”
Coluccio Construction, more than 50 years old, provides pipeline, shaft construction, tunnel, drilling, ground stabilization and other services for a variety of industries.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show no open cases involving the company. The company has one closed case, from 2005, in which it paid a $300 fine for three violations; and one serious violation in 2003, for which it was fined $1,800.