Three utility workers died Monday when they became trapped in a wastewater trench in the Keys after being overcome by fumes, authorities said.
The workers, who were employed by a private company, had gone underground to look into a dip in a newly paved Key Largo road.
A firefighter who went underground to their rescue also was overcome by fumes and was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami in serious condition, said Monroe sheriff’s spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin. Two deputies were taken to Mariners Hospital in the Keys for observation, she said.
Monroe’s 911 dispatch got the emergency call about 8:30 a.m. Monday. Rescue workers also evacuated people in the immediate area because of a possible gas leak, Herrin said. The trench is in a subdivision on the bayside of mile marker 106 in Key Largo.
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Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said the firefighter decided to enter the hole without his air pack because the hole was not wide enough to fit the man and his equipment.
The county contracted workers were in the 15-foot hole investigating a dip in the road, Ramsay said. The gas was a mixture of hydrogen sulfide and methane. The workers and firefighter have not been named.
Another firefighter was able to get in the hole with his air pack and rescue his colleague.
Monroe sheriff's deputies performed CPR on the firefighter until paramedics arrived and took him to Mariners Hospital in Tavernier. The county's Trauma Star helicopter ambulance flew him to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where Ramsay said he is “fighting for his life.”
Ramsay said drainage holes typically have vents to avoid gas build-ups, and this hole showed no signs of venting.
He said his detectives will be investigating the deaths. He also expected an investigation by OSHA.
Two bodies were recovered Monday morning. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue hazmat units were called in to recover the third man's body.
The workers, who are not employees of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District, work for D.N. Higgins, a private contractor with a Florida base in Naples, according to Paul Christian, general manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.
In April, 2002, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection of a Higgins project in a Marco Island manhole resulted in a $2,500 fine that got settled for $1,875.
The citation said, among other violations, that atmospheric testing wasn't performed; a confined space entry program wasn't implemented; confined space entry permits weren't implemented by a qualified person; a rescue plan wasn't implemented; rescue services weren't available in a timely manner; and rescue equipment wasn't available at the site.
Douglas N. Higgins Inc., founded in 1966 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has 17 projects in progress around Florida, three of them in the Keys.
Monday’s work in the area involved four workers going inside a drainage manhole to investigate a dip in a newly paved road, said Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark.
The fourth worker was treated at the scene.
"He's more upset than anything else," Clark said.