Fatal leap into trench leads to many questions

July 10, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

Those who knew him best say Francis Allen Mercilliott invited trouble. At 53, he still liked to go bar-hopping with his son, get into fistfights that recalled his days as an amateur boxing champion and occasionally drop by his ex-wife's home even though she had forbidden him to visit.

And Mr. Mercilliott, who led steam-pipe replacement projects for Gaithersburg-based M&M Welding and Fabricators Inc., performed his work with a similar disdain for caution. That explains why, say his son and his friends, he jumped into an unsecured trench early June 7 at a work site on the Springfield Hospital Center grounds in Sykesville.

State officials give varying accounts of what caused the ensuing cave-in, and an investigation by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Agency (MOSH) is not complete. But it is clear that an avalanche of dirt -- either from the trench's collapsing walls or from piles that had been left too close to the edge of the hole -- fell on Mr. Mercilliott and killed him.

"He must have thought it was a two-minute job," said his son, Francis Mercilliott 2nd, who also works as a steamfitter and believes his father was trying to assist the backhoe operator digging the trench.

"He's jumped in trenches like that before," his son said. "I've done it, and just about every steamfitter in the world has done it. But it finally got him that time."

If Mr. Mercilliott had used a nearby movable box, a two-walled structure designed to prevent falling dirt from harming trench workers, he would have survived, emergency workers say. Dr. Dennis Chute, an assistant state medical examiner, says an autopsy suggests that the falling dirt suffocated Mr. Mercilliott.

"I've known Frank for almost 25 years, and I know that he was a very impatient person," says Wally Stumpf, business manager of Mr. Mercilliott's union, Local 602 of the United Association of Steamfitters. "I'm not saying it was his fault . . . but he was in charge, and he wanted to go into the ditch too fast."

The death is one of the few marks on the company's otherwise strong safety record, according to state officials.

M&M, which was incorporated in 1972 and has about 65 employees, had never been cited for violating Maryland-mandated safety procedures before it undertook the Springfield Hospital project, says MOSH Administrator Joseph T. Seidel.

In fact, M&M workers returned to the site within three days of the death and are completing a $324,000 replacement of old, failing pipes that make up the hospital's underground steam distribution system. Mr. Seidel says MOSH is not requiring anything more than routine safety inspections despite the fatal cave-in.

But when Mr. Mercilliott was in charge of the project, everything seemed to be going wrong, according to MOSH records obtained under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Roger Campbell, a MOSH inspector, visited the site during the first week of May and cited M&M for numerous trench-digging violations -- including failure to secure ditch walls.

Mr. Mercilliott never saw the citations or the accompanying $19,975 in fines; they were not officially issued by the state until the day he died, which officials say is coincidental. But Mr. Campbell orally warned the foreman of the safety problems, according to the inspector's written reports.

During their conversations, Mr. Mercilliott told Mr. Campbell that while he was unaware of proper safety procedures in trench digging, he would try to enact the inspector's recommendations, the report states.

But Mr. Stumpf says that Mr. Mercilliott had worked on similar projects for 22 years and that he knew all the correct procedures -- he just wasn't intent on following them.

"Of course, when the state starts asking questions it's typical to say you don't know the rules," Mr. Stumpf says. "He knew the . . . safety rules. I guarantee you that he knew."

M&M is contesting the state's finding of safety violations on the Springfield project.

Company officials met with MOSH chief Craig Lowry two weeks ago, but that conference failed to resolve differences.

M&M has notified the state that it will make a formal appeal of the violations and $19,975 in fines to a state administrative judge. But the company has not publicly offered an explanation for the safety situation at the hospital site.

Last week at the company's Gaithersburg headquarters, safety officer Bret Bestsitch would say only that he was investigating and intended to "prove the state wrong."

A similar disagreement could develop over the state's investigation of Mr. Mercilliott's death -- particularly if MOSH pushes for sanctions against the company.

Already, different accounts of the fatal accident have surfaced.

Representatives of MOSH and the state Department of General Services, which arranged for the pipe repairs at the hospital, say Mr. Mercilliott was killed by dirt left too close to the edge of the trench.

But emergency workers on the scene that day, as well as a source close to the MOSH investigation, say it was the walls of the ditch that caved in on the victim.

And Mr. Mercilliott's son says that a co-worker approached him at his father's funeral to apologize for walking too close to the trench and possibly causing its collapse.

In addition, Mr. Mercilliott's son says that in his final days, his father may have been more reckless than usual.

Two months before the accident, Mr. Mercilliott was diagnosed with cancer -- he reportedly believed it came from years of contact with asbestos -- and talked of retiring so he could spend more time having fun.

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