Family of contractor who suffocated cleaning ABIA grease trap plans to sue city

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lonnie Deary shouldn’t have been underground the morning of April 10th.

The 48-year-old Army Veteran was cleaning out a grease trap inside an underground vault at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s East Loading Dock.

Overcome by toxic gases, he passed out and fell deeper into the vault. Reports obtained by KXAN say first responders arrived nearly 30 minutes later.

Deary died in the hospital on April 11th.

His family has hired an attorney, who notified the city of Austin they plan to sue over Deary’s death.

Meanwhile, KXAN investigators learned that Deary’s employer, city contractor Liquid Environmental Solutions, was not trained to handle the hazardous conditions that awaited Deary under the ground.

What happened

On the early morning hours of April 10th, two employees with ABIA Terminal Operations responded to the airport’s East Loading Dock.

Lonnie Deary was unresponsive in the underground vault where the grease trap is located.

Deary’s co-worker with Liquid Environmental Solutions told airport employees Deary had gone down into the grease trap area and complained he couldn’t breathe.

On his way back up the ladder, he passed out and fell, hitting his head.

Deary’s co-worker tried to go down and help him. He was unable to breathe but managed to return to the surface.

An AFD report says when rescuers arrived and lifted Deary out, he was not breathing.

The report says Deary’s pulse returned after about 20 minutes of CPR, but that he went back into cardiac arrest while being transported to the hospital.

Deary was removed from life support, and OSHA was notified.

Toxic gases and low levels of oxygen were detected in the underground grease trap area.

The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Deary’s cause of death as “toxic effects of hydrogen sulfide.”

According to reports obtained by KXAN, the initial group of firefighters and paramedics who responded to the scene were sent to the wrong location.

They were dispatched from Fire Station 42, close to the airport.

An EMS spokesperson tells us part of the reason for this delay was also that this group had to wait for security to open an airport gate.

Contractor was not confined space trained

Oscar Zamarron is an expert in workplace safety.

He says toxic fumes are not uncommon in permit-required confined spaces, and companies that go in them need special training.

OSHA defines a permit-required confined space as an area that has restricted means for exit and entry, isn’t designed for continuous employee occupancy, and also can have a hazardous atmosphere or other safety issues.

“All that training has to take place before they actually go in there,” said Zamarron. “They need to understand the dangers.”

That training includes using monitors to check for hazardous gases, airing out the fumes, and using a harness and other equipment to help workers in and out.

But Liquid Environmental Solutions was not confined space trained.

That’s what a company representative told Austin airport management in the days following Lonnie Deary’s death.

An AFD investigator wrote in an incident report that “no monitors, SCBA or retrieval equipment of any kind was available and the other person with Liquid [Environmental] Solutions indicated he had no training in those areas.”

Liquid Environmental Solutions had been servicing the grease trap since 2015, when it was built.

It’s possible that company employees hadn’t been down in the grease trap area before.

Emails among airport staff from 2014 suggest the idea of using a rod and hook to remove the manhole cover from the grease trap, and using a hose to pump it out from above ground.

However, it’s still not clear why Deary was down in the grease trap area on April 10th.

Liquid Environmental Solutions declined to answer questions about Lonnie Deary’s case.

A company spokesperson told us, “Because the Austin Airport grease trap incident is still under an ongoing investigation, the company cannot comment.”

“Unfortunately these situations occur where we get a wake up call, and unfortunately somebody pays that price,” said Zamarron. “It’s a huge price to pay for that mistake.”

Airport: “An unfortunate accident”

When the East Loading Dock Grease Trap was designed, ABIA employees were aware of the potential dangers underground, and proper training needed to clean it out.

In a 2014 email, an Airport Environmental Conservation Program Manager wrote, “I want to be sure everyone understands that access to service the system appears to be very difficult (confined space, limited light, explosive gases).”

In the days after Deary’s death, emails show ABIA Chief Operating Officer Patti Edwards directed employees to place warning signs at the vault and other airport locations, indicating where confined spaces were.

When OSHA investigators asked the airport about a list of confined spaces on the property, Patti [Edwards] responded that ABIA staff would create one.

Another email to several airport employees said that “we would use this unfortunate accident as an opportunity to train and better educate our staff about the hazards associated with not just confined space but their overall duties.”

Because it is a municipality, the city of Austin is not required to adhere to OSHA regulations.

ABIA declined our request for an interview, citing the ongoing OSHA investigation and the legal action expected from Lonnie Deary’s family

The city did release a statement Wednesday through a memo from the Assistant City Manager.

The city acknowledged it received a “legal claim notice” from an attorney representing Lonnie Deary’s estate. It said there would be more details about it in a follow-up memo.

In the memo, the city said LES was required in the contract to comply with all OSHA, city and local “codes, standards, rules and regulations concerning safety.”

“While the City is not subject to OSHA regulations and enforcement, we are cooperating fully with the investigation,” a city spokesperson said Wednesday. “Due to the ongoing investigation and legal claim, we are not able to provide any additional information at this time.”

A different vendor is working to clean and maintain the grease trap until the city is able to go through the process of finding another company to work with full time.

One of the city’s Airport Advisory Commissioners has asked for an update from city staff on what went wrong the morning of April 10th.

In an email late last month, the Commissioner wrote, “I would request staff share current information on what happened and how we ensure it never happens again.  I hesitate to call it an accident, because with the proper training and credentials this would not have happened.  Thanks much for your assistance with this unfortunate event.” 

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