Water in culvert rose from inches to feet in a flash, police report

Workers say two men were swept out by swift current that barred rescue

November 22, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt and Sara Neufeld | Laura Barnhardt and Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The water flowing through the culvert under Interstate 70 where three construction workers were making repairs Wednesday was only 2 inches deep at first. About 2:30 p.m., as the rain started falling harder, the water rose to about 4 inches.

Within a minute, the project foreman told Baltimore County police, the pipe, which measures 8 feet in diameter, was three-fourths full.

The workers were still inside.

In a flash, the first worker was swept out. It looked as if he was swimming with the current, other workers at the site told Officer Eric B. Knox, a patrolman who was first on the scene of Wednesday's drownings.

When they spotted the worker again a few minutes later about 150 feet from the culvert, he was in the middle of a stream called Dead Run, wedged between two trees. It wasn't clear whether he was alive.

"I wanted to help him," Knox said yesterday, recalling the rescue efforts. "But I had to keep everyone out of the water. ... The current was too swift. I didn't want anyone to get into the same situation."

Within a few minutes, other police officers and the first city firefighters were on the stream bank, too. A paramedic wrapped a rope around his waist and waded out 20 feet to reach the worker, while the firefighters and officers held onto the rope to keep the paramedic -- who was waist-high in water -- and the worker from being swept away.

As they neared shore, Knox waded into the stream to help get the worker onto the bank, where firefighters tried to resuscitate him before transporting him to St. Agnes HealthCare.

Michael L. Shawyer, 22, of Cavetown in Washington County, was pronounced dead at the hospital.

"They did everything they could to save him," said Knox, who stayed near the creek as search teams continued to look for the other two men.

Workers told Knox they had seen the second man's hand sticking out of the water about 60 feet from the culvert but then didn't see him again. He was found near that spot about an hour later. Santos Zetino, 29, of Hyattsville, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Firefighters searched up and down the stream for about three hours. The crew foreman kept talking about what-ifs. The other workers were upset and in shock, Knox said.

The search for the third worker, who was presumed dead, was called off about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Arturo Zarate, 44, of Hyattsville, a father of four, was found Thursday morning inside the culvert, 250 feet from the entrance.

His foot had become stuck under a pipe in the culvert, which explains why he wasn't swept away by the water, fire officials said.

Companies with workers at the site declined to make them available to talk about the events of Wednesday afternoon.

Mike Aronoff, a river safety and rescue instructor for the American Canoe Association in Vienna, Va., said that when people are suddenly hit by that much water they are usually shocked into a temporary paralysis and often have what is called a "gasp reflex," causing them to suck water into their lungs.

Someone experienced in swift-water operations and wearing the right gear might be able to survive that situation, but a trio of construction workers would have "not a chance," Aronoff said.

"To me, it's just grim that some supervisory person didn't get them the heck out of that area," he said. "They shouldn't have been there in the first place."

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's division of labor and industry is investigating whether supervisors or employees of Concrete General Inc., the general contractor on the repair project, informed the workers that a flash-flood watch was in effect Wednesday.

The Gaithersburg company, which employed the three workers, had been cited for more than 30 workplace safety violations before Wednesday's accident, state and federal records show.

A crane operator for Concrete General Inc. was killed on the job in 1988. Most recently, in 2000 and 2001, the company was cited six times for trenching violations, according to Maryland Occupational Safety and Health records.

General Concrete officials did not return messages -- including one left in person -- yesterday.

Zarate's brother, Jose Alvarez, said he wants to make sure Concrete General starts showing more respect for the lives of its employees. "They are not a dog," he said. "They are human beings."

Alvarez was overwhelmed yesterday, making arrangements to send his brother's body to their native El Salvador while trying to help relatives through their grief. He broke down crying when his mother called from El Salvador yesterday, begging him to fly down for Zarate's funeral. "She can't stop crying," he said through his own tears after hanging up the phone.

Zarate left his wife, their three sons and their daughter in El Salvador two years ago to earn money in the United States for his family. He was saving money to return to El Salvador in March, Alvarez said.

Friends and family described Shawyer as a father who doted on his two daughters, an amateur mechanic and a skilled bowler.

Zetino, who wasn't married, was working hard to send money back to his parents and to save money to finish a house he had built in El Salvador, said his sister, Diana Rosa.

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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