Faulty wiring killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq

Risks still an issue years after caution on contractors' work

May 04, 2008|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- In October 2004, the U.S. Army issued an urgent bulletin to commanders across Iraq, warning them of a deadly new threat to American soldiers. Because of flawed electrical work by contractors, the bulletin stated, soldiers at American bases in Iraq had received severe electrical shocks, and some had even been electrocuted.

The bulletin, with the headline "The Unexpected Killer," was issued after the horrific deaths of two soldiers who were caught in water -- one in a shower, the other in a swimming pool -- that was suddenly electrified after poorly grounded wiring short-circuited.

"We've had several shocks in showers and near misses here in Baghdad, as well as in other parts of the country," Frank Trent, an expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote in the bulletin. "As we install temporary and permanent power on our projects, we must ensure that we require contractors to properly ground electrical systems."

Since that warning, at least two more American soldiers have been electrocuted in similar incidents. In all, at least a dozen American military personnel have been electrocuted in Iraq, according to the Pentagon and congressional investigators.

While several deaths have been attributed to inadvertent contact with power lines under battlefield conditions, the Army bulletin said that five deaths over the preceding year had apparently been caused by faulty grounding, and the circumstances of others have not been fully explained by the Army. Many more soldiers have been injured by shocks, Pentagon officials and soldiers say.

The accidental deaths and close calls, which are being investigated by Congress and the Defense Department's inspector general, raise new questions about the oversight of contractors in the war zone, where unjustified killings by security guards, shoddy reconstruction projects and fraud involving military supplies have spurred previous inquiries.

American electricians who worked for KBR, the Houston-based defense contractor that is responsible for maintaining American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, said they repeatedly warned company managers and military officials about unsafe electrical work, which was often performed by poorly trained Iraqis and Afghans paid just a few dollars a day.

One electrician warned his KBR bosses in his 2005 letter of resignation that unsafe electrical work was "a disaster waiting to happen."

Another said he witnessed an American soldier in Afghanistan receiving a potentially lethal shock.

A third provided e-mail messages and other documents showing that he had complained to KBR and the government that logs were created to make it appear that nonexistent electrical safety systems were properly functioning.

KBR told the Pentagon in early 2007 about unsafe electrical wiring at a base near the Baghdad airport, but no repairs were made. Less than a year later, a soldier was electrocuted in a shower there.

"I don't feel like they did their job," Carmen Nolasco Duran of La Puente, Calif., said of Pentagon officials. Her brother, Spc. Marcos O. Nolasco, was electrocuted at a base in Baiji in May 2004 while showering. "They hired these contractors, and yet they didn't go and double-check that the work was fine."

The Defense Contract Management Agency, which is responsible for supervising maintenance work by contractors at American bases in Iraq, defended its performance. In a written statement, the agency said it had no information that staff members "were aware" of the Army alert or "failed to take appropriate action in response to unsafe conditions brought to our attention."

Keith Ernst, who stepped down Wednesday as the agency's director, acknowledged, though, that the agency was "stretched too thin" in Iraq and that the small number of contract officers did not have expertise in dealing with so-called life support contracts, like that awarded to KBR to provide food, shelter and building maintenance. "We don't have the technical capability for overseeing life support systems," he said.

For its part, KBR, which until last year was known as Kellogg, Brown and Root and was a subsidiary of Halliburton, denied that any lapses by the company had led to the electrocutions of American soldiers.

"KBR's commitment to employee safety and the safety of those the company serves is unwavering," said a spokeswoman, Heather Browne. "KBR has found no evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and the reported electrocutions."

Browne declined to respond to the specific charges or assertions of former KBR electricians.

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