Editor's Note: In the October 2001 issue of PM, a special supplement was included for the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. In it, a story was published about Kearney, Neb., master plumber Aaron Wentz ("Aaron Wentz, Buried But Not Forgotten"). The story told of his steadfast devotion to PHCC, and of an incident -- a trenching cave-in -- that nearly took his life.
We received several letters and e-mails, and while all expressed gratitude that Aaron's life was spared, some questioned the precautions he and members of his firm took when entering the trench to tap a sewer main. There were even concerns that the accident, or writing about it, portrayed PHCC poorly. Feature writer John Vastyan talked further to Aaron and Monty Splitter, City of Kearney Building Inspector, and reports more about that fateful day in May of 1999:
Aaron is a professional plumber who takes safety very seriously. Before the accident, Aaron and his employees had taken several OSHA training classes. They hired a jobsite safety firm to further train their personnel and to evaluate the company and its compliance with various regulatory bodies, including OSHA.
On a clear, crisp spring day, Aaron entered a large trench to tap a sewer main 13 feet below grade; it was type "B" soil. Workspace was about 6 feet wide at the base, with a 3-foot tall by 3-foot wide shelf on each side of that. The sidewalls of the trench, meticulously carved-out by a skilled backhoe operator, were sloped way back so that the top of the trench opening was nearly 21-feet wide. (Unfortunately, the photo doesn't show the width of the trench, or shorings; Aaron was shown being lifted out of a much narrower spot cut 20 feet from the trench section where he was working.)
City of Kearney Building Inspector Monty Splitter, a man with eight years of experience on the job and 20-plus years of experience as a plumber before that, was actually on the jobsite inspecting the trench and other aspects of the job on the day of the accident.
As he looked into the trench and spoke with Aaron, he commented that it was refreshing to see so many precautions taken to insure the safety of workers. Yet, moments later, the walls caved in, completely trapping Aaron in the trench with about 20 inches of soil over his head.
As people frantically tried to free Aaron, digging with bare hands and yard spades, rescue and fire crews were called to the scene. Miraculously, after about eight minutes, he was found. Aaron's father, helping him on the jobsite that day, was the first to reach his son. And just as they had cleared enough soil away from Aaron's chest to begin pulling him out, the entire trench caved again, dumping a full 2 feet of soil above his head. This time it took longer to unearth him, yet again he survived, suffering only a fractured elbow.
As the Wentz family and safety officials reviewed how the accident unfolded, they quickly pointed to an anomaly in the soil conditions, a weak and unpredictable vein of soil that, long ago, was the old river bottom of the Platte River. The clay and sand usually held its ground, but would occasionally shift in massive amounts when disturbed. A key problem was predicting when a trench crossed these sections of the bed.
To make matters worse, said Splitter, Aaron's trench went through disturbed, and undisturbed, soils. An old ditch had been dug 50 years earlier for the sewer main. The trench to tap it entered this soil diagonally.
Splitter had arrived shortly before the accident while Aaron was tapping the line. He did note that some groundwater was beginning to seep into the trench. "But it did not look threatening in any way. And, being precautious, they [Aaron's Plumbing] over-dug by a lot," Splitter said. "The trench looked very safe."
After the accident, Aaron spoke to their safety consultants, asking what he had done wrong. He was told that perhaps his shorings were half a foot too short, that the trench shelves could have been a foot larger, and that a second shelf might have helped.
But, realistically, they said, even had these things been seen to, it probably would not have prevented the accident due to the massive movement of soil. It was determined that the clay and sand that filled the hole would likely not have been stopped entirely had all of these precautions been taken.
Says Aaron: "When we went back to finish the job a week later, the trench was widened to nearly 40 feet wide before we found virgin soil that had not been disturbed from the accident. To this day, we've not done exterior work south of 11th Street, which is, we learned, where the north side of the old Platte River ran.
"I have to admit that today I have good days and bad days for when I can get in a ditch or even know when the crew is working in a ditch. But my dad can't even see a hole without turning white and growing faint. Dad saw what happened. I experienced it. It was an accident. Even when we take our own lives and safety precautions very seriously, sometimes accidents happen anyway."
Says Jane Wentz, Aaron's wife: "I know there are times when I read articles and wonder 'What were they thinking?' or, 'Didn't they know better?' But then I stop and am reminded -- just as some people criticized us for lack of safety precautions that day -- that I don't know all the facts; that I may be misjudging the situation because I wasn't there."
OSHA did not express interest in conducting a safety hearing about the incident in Kearney. There was acknowledgement of the extent of precautions that Aaron's Plumbing had taken. And it helped, according to Aaron, that he -- the owner of the business -- had been involved. And, of course, that no one had died.