Foreman killed in cave-in

June 08, 1994|By Bill Talbott | Bill Talbott,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Amy L. Miller contributed to this article.

A 53-year-old construction foreman, working on his last project before retirement, was killed in Sykesville when a trench caved in on him yesterday.

Police said the victim was identified from his driver's license as Francis Allen Mercilliott of the 4200 block of Overlook Court near Dunkirk in Calvert County.

Authorities said he was working on the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center, where underground steam pipes were being removed. A mound of freshly dug dirt, piled at the edge of a 10-foot-deep ditch, caved in on top of him about 6:30 a.m. Rescue workers were notified at 7:07 a.m., they said.

His body was recovered from the ditch about 9:45 a.m. by members of the Sykesville fire-rescue company, the Baltimore County Advanced Cave-In and Advanced Tactical Rescue unit, and firefighters from West Friendship of the Howard County fire department.

Capt. Bob Chesney of the Sykesville Rescue Squad said the first crews were able to determine that Mr. Mercilliott was dead, so they employed time-consuming safety precautions in removing the body, to minimize danger to rescuers.

He called the incident "a very preventable accident."

David Humphrey, director of public information for the state Department of General Services, said, "The victim jumped into the ditch even though a back-hoe operator, who was excavating dirt from the ditch, yelled to him, 'Frank, don't get in there, I'm not ready for you,' and immediately the dirt covered the foreman."

The information officer said an inspector for a subcontractor at the construction site jumped into the cave-in and began digging with her hands in an attempt to save the victim, but was unable to uncover him.

Fire department rescuers said only the man's shirt, at the center of his back, was visible when they arrived. The body was in an inverted U position, head and feet down.

A piece of welding equipment was discovered near the victim's hand, but it was not clear whether Mr. Mercilliott had jumped into the ditch to retrieve it.

State officials said M&M Welding & Fabricators Inc., of Gaithersburg, has a $324,000 contract to replace the underground steam distribution system at Springfield Hospital because of old, failing pipes. The work started in March and was nearing completion, they said.

According to state officials, M&M had been warned within the past two weeks about failure to shore up the sides of ditches properly. M&M officials would not comment or identify their employee.

Mr. Humphrey said co-workers told him Mr. Mercilliott had been with the company for 15 years and was planning to retire after the Springfield project was completed.

Mr. Mercilliott was pronounced dead by Dr. Richard Jones, associate medical examiner for Carroll County. His body was to be taken to the medical examiner's office in Baltimore for an autopsy, officials said.

Mr. Humphrey said the M&M company had been cited several times for violations at the Springfield job site, most recently about two weeks ago.

A Department of General Services inspector arrived at the site shortly after the accident, according to Mr. Humphrey. He had also been at the project Monday and is the inspector who warned company officials that they must use standard guidelines and safety measures, the spokesman said.

The pipeline extension, where the accident occurred, feeds the medical and surgical building on the sprawling grounds of the hospital center.

Baltimore County Battalion Chief Stephen Lancaster, advanced tactical rescue commander, said that by jumping into the ditch, the victim caused the side wall to collapse and cover him.

Captain Chesney said a steel framing unit, which was sitting nearby, should have been used to shore up the sides of the ditch under the regulations of OSHA and MOSH (federal and state occupational safety and health agencies).

The captain said paramedics who arrived with the first rescue unit were unable to get any pulse from the victim after part of the body was uncovered.

Rescue workers also used a large truck vacuum to remove some of the dirt covering the victim, but he had been buried too long, they said.

M&M officials closed the construction site yesterday.

Investigators expect to complete their work in 30 to 45 days, said Nancy Burkheimer of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health program.

"There will be a complete investigation," including interviews, she said. "That takes place in any accident where there is a fatality."

Ms. Burkheimer said M&M's safety record was not immediately available. She said MOSH officials will not comment on the accident until the case is closed.

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