Widow wants answers

Port worker's `suspicious death' still unexplained, 6 weeks later

August 17, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

More than six weeks after a Maryland Port Administration maintenance supervisor died of massive head injuries suffered at work, police and port officials have yet to settle on an explanation for a fatal incident that was not promptly reported to law enforcement officers and paramedics.

Robert Benway, 45, was rushed to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in a truck by co-workers June 26 with injuries they said he suffered in a fall from a ladder at the all-but-deserted Clinton Street Marine Terminal. He died July 1 without regaining consciousness.

Benway's death has not been publicly reported by the MPA, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police or the Maryland Department of Transportation.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption on the front page of the Maryland section yesterday incorrectly identified a structure in the background of a portrait of Linda Benway as the building where her late husband worked. In fact, it was the Clinton Street Marine Termminal, where co-workers at the Maryland Port Administration reported that Robert Benway was fatally injured in a fall.
The Sun regrets the error.

But the 21-year state employee's widow, Linda Benway, is demanding answers.

She wants to know why her husband's co-workers did not call 911 and wonders whether the outcome would have been different if he had been transported to the hospital in an ambulance.

The 49-year-old widow, who had been married to Robert Benway four years, also wonders why it took five days and her husband's death to prompt a police investigation of an accident MPA officials knew was serious from the day it happened.

Neither MPA officials nor the police have much information to offer. They say the incident, which the police have classified as a "suspicious death," is under investigation. They will not even confirm the location of the apparent fall.

The way authorities have handled the incident has so raised the suspicions of Linda Benway that she has hired a private detective to investigate what happened.

Benway's position is complicated by her own employment by the MPA, where she is secretary to the operations director. Though she said officials there have discouraged her from speaking to The Sun, Benway approached the newspaper in hopes that the truth will come out - even if it casts her late husband in an unflattering light.

"My husband put in a lot of years here, and I don't want him to be swept under the rug," she said.

Her inquiries have led Benway to question whether the accident actually took place in the dark, cavernous Clinton Street warehouse as her husband's co-workers reported.

"There was no work order. His supervisor did not even know where they were," she said. "Clinton Street is a fairy tale."

F. Brooks Royster III, executive director of the MPA, said the Clinton Street Terminal is used for "nothing."

Royster, who has headed the MPA a little more than a year, met with a reporter to talk about the case. But to many questions - including whether the fall took place in the warehouse - he offered a "no comment" because the accident is under investigation.

"When the police report comes out, I'll be happy to revisit [it]," he said.

Among the issues surrounding the case is the decision of two of Robert Benway's co-workers not to call 911 but to transport him to Bayview through the bumpy streets of Southeast Baltimore.

One of the co-workers said he rushed Benway to the hospital because he didn't think he would have lived if they had called 911.

But Dr. Robert R. Bass, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, noted that professional care can begin as soon as a crew arrives at the scene.

"We obviously recommend that people call 911 when they have someone that's seriously injured," said Bass, who was speaking generally about emergency care and has no direct knowledge of the case. He said the city has "a pretty reasonable response time" in such cases.

Bass said it is especially risky to try to transport a patient with head injuries because of the need to keep the person's airways open, blood pressure maintained and spine protected.

Royster said that "to the best of my knowledge," MPA employees are trained to call 911 in such emergencies.

Because 911 was not called, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police were not notified immediately - as officials acknowledge they should have been in the case of a serious accident on MPA property. But although top-ranking port and Transportation Department officials knew about the accident that day, they took no steps that week to ensure an investigation was launched.

Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary W. McLhinney said his department didn't hear about the incident until after Robert Benway's death - and then only because the state medical examiner called to ask for a copy of a police report that didn't exist.

Police then ordered an autopsy, McLhinney said. McLhinney said the delayed notification hindered the probe. "There were some things that were lost as a result of the delay," he said. Nevertheless, the chief said, he is confident investigators will find the truth.

"I understand the frustrations of the family, but sometimes these things take a while," he said yesterday.

McLhinney added that the investigation is "very much active" and that the location where Benway was injured is one of the issues his officers are still looking at.

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