2 who died in manhole incident identified

August 18, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN STAFF WRITER

The two construction workers who died after losing consciousness in a sewer manhole Wednesday evening at Villa Julie College's Owings Mills campus were identified yesterday by Baltimore County police, while state occupational safety officials tried to determine what caused their deaths.

Cesar Salazar, 22, of the 300 block of Middle Grove Court in Westminster went into the manhole first, apparently to retrieve a tool, and lost consciousness, according to state and local authorities. A second worker, Craig Michael Gouker, 47, of the 1000 block of Old Westminster Road in Hanover, Pa., went in the 15-foot hole to attempt to rescue Salazar but also lost consciousness, officials said.

Gouker was pronounced dead at the scene, in the 10900 block of Boulevard Circle, about 6 p.m. Wednesday. Salazar died later at Northwest Hospital Center, police said.

Both men worked for an Eldersburg paving company, M.T. Laney Co. A woman who answered the phone at the firm yesterday said company officials had no comment about the accident.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health officials are investigating the deaths. An industrial investigator examined conditions at the site yesterday, said Linda Sherman, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

In underground sewer holes, high levels of methane gas and depletion of oxygen are common, Sherman said.

Baltimore County firefighters suspect that the air wasn't circulating in the deep, narrow hole and that a lack of oxygen caused the deaths. When firefighters arrived, the level of oxygen was at 20 percent, said Chief Mike Robinson, a county fire spokesman. The normal level of oxygen in air is 21 percent. If the oxygen level goes below 19.5 percent, it's considered an "asphyxiating atmosphere," according to federal standards, Robinson said.

When firefighters measured the air, they had already opened another adjacent hole, which might have allowed some oxygen into the space and led to a reading above the 19.5 percent threshold, according to Robinson.

The firefighters did not detect methane or hydrogen sulfide gas, which is often present in active sewer systems, Robinson said, but the sewer hole hadn't yet been hooked up to the main sewer system in that area.

The college is building dorms on the campus where the workers were paving near the manhole.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, 21 workplace deaths occurred in confined spaces nationwide in 2005 and 13 in 2004.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that deaths often occur in confined spaces because the air is "oxygen-deficient or toxic," and that the air in closed spaces should be tested before a worker enters it and then continuously monitored. More than half of confined-space deaths are those of would-be rescuers, according to the federal agency.

Robinson cautioned people to teach their children to stay out of sewer manholes or storm drains, where air often isn't circulating and where dangerous gases can collect in the confined spaces. In addition to the hazard of being trapped, people can suffocate in such spaces, he said.

It can be tempting to attempt to retrieve an item that's fallen into a hole, such as the one the men descended into, Robinson said. But, he said, "It's not worth a life to get a diamond ring or a tool or a ball back."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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