Day laborer killed in tree-trimming accident remembered as skilled worker

September 4, 2011

Although they worked together only occasionally, the two men had forged a close relationship over the past decade. They checked up on each other regularly. They were like brothers.

So when Orlando Hernandez missed a job Saturday morning, Tom Ruttkay started to worry. Calls to Hernandez’s cellphone kept going to voicemail, said Ruttkay, a Maryland artist.

“I knew something was up,” Ruttkay said. “He’d never leave me behind dry like that.”

Ruttkay’s intuition was right.

Hernandez, 48, was killed Saturday while on another job in Takoma Park. Police said he was electrocuted when a ladder he was using to trim a tree touched a high-voltage power line.

On Sunday, Ruttkay remembered Hernandez as a disciplined co-worker and a humble and trustworthy friend.

“I’m just going to miss this guy so much,” Ruttkay said. “It really hasn’t hit me yet.”

Ruttkay, who paints murals, would sometimes hire Hernandez to lay down base coats or perform other prep work. Hernandez was so hard-working and skilled that Ruttkay began recommending Hernandez for other painting and drywall jobs. But mostly, Hernandez was simply an honest guy, Ruttkay said.

“He was the kind of person that I felt comfortable recommending to people who didn’t know him,” he said.

Over time, the two became good friends, hanging out at Ruttkay’s house for summer cookouts.

Their relationship grew, despite a language barrier. Hernandez, a native of the Dominican Republic, spoke limited English and Ruttkay spoke just as much Spanish. But Hernandez knew how to engage people, Ruttkay said.

Hernandez is survived by a son and daughter, both of whom live in New England, Ruttkay said. Attempts to reach Hernandez’s family Sunday were unsuccessful. Takoma Park police notified an immediate family member in Hyattsville of Hernandez’s death, police Sgt. Andrew John said.

As he works to recover from the loss of a friend, Ruttkay said he was surprised to learn how Hernandez died. Hernandez was a skilled general painter, not a landscaper. Tree trimming “wasn’t his thing,” Ruttkay said.

Hernandez also was careful with ladders and electricity and was “safety-conscious,” Ruttkay added. “Everything about this is just tragic.”

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