A painter on Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge was missing and presumed dead after falling more than 100 feet into the river while working on the span.
Detroit Police and the U.S. Coast Guard continued Friday to search the frigid Detroit River for painter-blaster Kent Morton, 27, of Garden City, MI, who fell from the privately owned bridge on Wednesday afternoon.
Seaway Painting LLC
|Project photos from Seaway Painting’s web site show its work on the Ambassador Bridge in 2000, when the contractor completed the span’s first complete facelift.|
Hopes for Morton’s survival were dimming, however, and his mother said: “We know he’s in heaven.”
‘Lost One of Our Own’
Morton is employed by Seaway Painting LLC, a union contractor based in Livonia, MI. On Friday, the company expressed its condolences for what it called a “tragic accident.”
“Kent Morton has been an employee with Seaway Painting for seven years and has worked on various bridge projects,” the company said in a statement. “Our heartfelt condolences, thoughts and prayers are with Kent's family. …
“Seaway Painting is a family business and feels that we have lost one of our own as a result of this incident.”
The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into the accident, while the search for Morton continued. Seaway said it was cooperating with that investigation and conducting its own.
The Ambassador Bridge, also known as the Detroit International Bridge¸ is the busiest border crossing in North America.
Authorities said Morton was working from scaffolding set up under the bridge when fell about 130 feet into the river just before 2 p.m. Wednesday. His brother, Shane Morton, told the Detroit Free Press that Kent Morton had been painting or sandblasting when he fell.
Seaway Painting LLC
|At its highest point, the bridge rises 152 feet above the Detroit River.|
Shane Morton called his brother “a hard worker, an amazing man, best friend, [and] a great father” with one daughter and a second child on the way.
Local television video showed Morton’s scaffolding dangling from one end—an image that evoked a similar fall from the bridge 12 years ago.
Police, co-workers and family members all said they had no idea what caused the accident or whether Morton had had any fall protection in place while he worked.
Co-workers told police that they had seen Morton trying to swim after he hit the water, but that the current overtook him after several minutes.
Searchers worked until 9 p.m. Wednesday, then all day Thursday, and again on Friday to find him.
Morton’s fall appeared eerily similar to one that claimed the life of a Canadian painter on the Canadian side of the bridge in 2000, CBC reported. In that case, Jamie Barker perished when his platform collapsed and he fell from the span. His body was not recovered for months.
In 2001, CBC said, two painters were rescued from the U.S. side after scaffolding on the bridge collapsed, leaving them dangling more than 100 feet above the water.
After Barker’s death, a coroner's inquest made 50 recommendations to improve the safety of workers on the bridge.
CBC quoted Don Learn, foreman of the Barker jury, as expressing shock over Morton’s fall.
“The similarities are so dramatic,” Learn said. “A number of those aspects are troubling and reflective of the incident with Jamie Barker.”
Seaway has a history with OSHA, having been cited after 11 of 13 inspections from 2003 to 2011. Most of the inspections were planned; one was prompted by a complaint.
OSHA records list these cases:
August 2011: OSHA issued one serious and one other-than-serious citation against Seaway and proposed a $2,000 fine. That case remains open.
2010: Seaway paid a $320 fine for one serious and seven other-than-serious citations. Two other-than-serious citations were dropped, and the fine was reduced from $800.
2009: Seaway paid $1,320 for three serious and eight other-than-serious violations (reduced from five serious and seven “other,” with an initial fine of $1,800).
2008: Seaway paid $500 for two serious violations.
June 2006: Seaway paid $700 for one serious and two other-than-serious violations. The fine was reduced from $2,000.
April 2006: Seaway paid $1,750 for five serious and one other-than-serious violation. The fine was reduced from $2,875.
October 2004: Seaway paid $4,262.50 for eight serious and two other-than-serious violations. One serious violation was dropped, and the fine was reduced from $7,000.
June 2004: Seaway paid $3,000 for two serious and two other-than-serious violations.
May 2004: Seaway paid $375 for one other-than-serious violation, reduced from one serious violation.
April 2003: Seaway paid $420 for one serious and six other-than-serious violations, after one serious violation was reduced to “other” and the fine reduced from $600.
March 2003: Seaway paid $187.50 (half the original fine) for one serious and three other-than-serious violations.
Bridge Painting Work
Seaway has worked on the Ambassador Bridge before. In 1999, the company was chosen to strip and apply three coats to the bridge's 1.7 million square feet of surfaces. The $20 million project concluded in November 2000.
In December 2011, the company was awarded the current contract, which involves cleaning and coating curb rails on the of 2.76-mile bridge, which connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario.
Seaway was by far the lowest of five bidders for the current painting project. Its bid of $363,075 was less than half that of the next-highest bid of $810,110. Two bids topped $1 million, and one topped $2.1 million.
Bridge Owners Jailed
Morton’s accident was not the only challenge facing the Detroit International Bridge Co. last week.
A day after the painter’s fall, the 84-year-old bridge owner and company president were sent to jail.
It was the latest chapter in DIBC’s decade-long legal feud with authorities on both sides of the border.
Detroit International Bridge Co.
|Completed in 1929, the privately owned Ambassador Bridge (also known as the Detroit International Bridge) connects Detroit with Windsor, Ontario.|
Both governments want to build a publicly owned international crossing that would compete directly with the Ambassador Bridge, which was built in 1929. DIBC holds a monopoly on the crossing's commercial truck traffic.
A year ago, DIBC president Dan Stamper was briefly jailed in that dispute. On Thursday, a judge ordered Stamper back to jail for refusing to proceed with court-ordered construction on the bridge. And this time, DIBC owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, 84, was jailed with him.
Stamper and Moroun will remain in jail until they comply with a 2010 order to start the work.
“It is clear that the Detroit International Bridge Co. does not intend to comply with the court orders unless meaningful sanctions are imposed,” said Wayne County Judge Prentis Edwards.