A 25-year-old construction worker was killed and a coworker was injured yesterday when an unsupported 16-foot-deep trench at a West Springfield townhouse construction site caved in on them.
Yesterday's fatality, the 14th construction-related death in Northern Virginia in two years, immediately fueled an already heated dispute among federal, state and Fairfax County officials over the adequacy of state inspections in the fast-growing Virginia suburbs.
The latest accident occurred one month after Virginia safety officials cited the men's employer, the William B. Hopke Construction Co. of Alexandria, for shoring violations, a Virginia labor official said.
A task force of federal job safety inspectors has issued citations for 160 serious violations at Northern Virginia commercial building sites in recent weeks -- proof, Fairfax officials said, that the state inspections program is a failure.
"The situation is criminal," said Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale) of the task force's findings.
Supervisor Alan H. Magazine (D-Mason), a leader with Moore of the county's fight for more state inspectors or permission from Virginia officials to use county inspectors, said Fairfax officials will sue the state in federal court in Alexandria "in the near future" to gain such permission following yesterday's cave-in death.
The latest victim, identified as George Cooper of Harper's Ferry, W. Va., was buried under three feet of loose dirt at 9:30 a.m. in the trench where he was helping lay sewer pipe.
Cooper was trapped for 75 minutes, according to a police spokesman, before frantic digging efforts by county rescue workers and site workers managed to extricate him.
His coworker, Kenneth Woodward of Culpeper, who received a broken ankle in the cave-in, was buried up to his shoulders for 15 minutes.
Cooper was treated with a heart and lung resuscitator and anti-shock drugs, but did not regain consciousness, a county fire and rescue spokesman said.
"We dug . . . we dug with hands, sticks, anything we could get hold of," said a site worker who asked not to be identified. "We just couldn't get him out . . . damn it, we just couldn't get him out."
The accident occurred near a wooded area 600 yards from the deadend of Golden Ball Tavern Court in southern Fairfax County.
The federal government has ultimate responsibility for worker safety in Virginia, but has allowed the state to conduct its own inspections, subject to federal review. Virginia was slated to receive final approval for its safety inspection program last month, but federal officials have held up approval in part because of charges that the state is not adequately enforcing safety laws.
Supervisor Marie B. Travesky (R-Springfield) said yesterday she would file a complete report of the accident with the office of Gov. John N. Dalton. Travesky said she asked the governor, through an aide to Dalton, to increase the number of state inspectors in the area or allow Fairfax to use its own inspectors.
"The fact that the state has only three inspectors for all of Northern Virginia has become criminal," she said.
William B. Hopke, president of Hopke Construction, was unavailable for comment yesterday. But Charles Wicker, director of the Construction Safety Division of the state's Department of Labor and Industry, said the Hopke Company was cited by a state inspector one month ago for "a serious violation involving unsafe trenches."
Wicker added that he was unsure of the last state inspection date of the Golden Ball Tavern site.
Referring to yesterday's cave-in, Wicker said, "I know the trench was not shored up, but sloped at an angle. I don't know whether it was an acceptable angle, but it obviously wasn't safe."
Travesky said she was told by police and rescue workers at the scene that the trench "was very steeply sloped. There is no way that you could say it was gradual. The soil there is very loose and sandy anyway."
Wicker said he was pleased that state inspectors arrived at the collapse site "in 15 minutes. You can't get there much quicker than that. The inspector was there to see the victim dug out of the ground."
"Is he (Wicker) proud of that? I think that's incredible. I suppose that is being responsible," Travesky said.
Magazine said he was "speechless."
"In my opinion, what we have in Northern Virginia is rampant white collar crime, and the state is aiding and abetting it.
"When a state (official) can say it is good that an inspector was there to see a man dug out of a trench, he's just as guilty as the man who didn't shore up the trench," Magazine said.
Wicker said he questioned "how many inspectors are enough? One on one . . . one on every construction site in Northern Virginia? It's a difficult question, but I think the issue is not the quantity of inspectors, but the quality."
Wicker added that Hopke Construction officials could face a $10,000 fine and a six-month jail term if found guilty of willful neglect in the trench collapse.
Magazine, in an interview earlier this week, said it was "virtually impossible to assure safety" standards for construction workers under current Virginia inspection procedures. He said he brought the safety question to the attention of the board of supervisors a year ago after a trench cave-in in Annandale.
Two young men, Robert Baker and Michael DeGrott, employes of the S. O. Jennings Construction Co. of Fairfax County, died in the accident after a 17-foot trench collapsed and burried them alive.
Julia DeGrott, Michael's mother, said she was en route yesterday from her Annandale home to the cemetery where her son is buried when she heard about the latest cave-in.
"When are they (the state) going to get enough inspectors to put a stop to this?" asked DeGrott, who said yesterday would have been Michael's 27th birthday.
Members of the federal task force from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found violations at non-residential building sites throughout Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax that could result in "serious physical injury or death," a spokesman said this week.
Charles Straw of OSHA's Pittsburgh office said the 10-man team found several instances of failure to shore up trenches, lack of appropriate safety equipment for workers and failure to provide guardrails for scaffolding among other violations.
At one site, Straw said contractors allegedly failed to add safety devices on compressed air hoses that could "whip around and kill or knock out somebody."
Straw said the task force would not release full details for the investigatin until each contractor has been presented with citations.
Fairfax County, where more than $700 million of construction is under way, has continued with the training of 100 county inspectors for construction sites, despite statements by Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman that only state or federal inspectors "may (legallly) enforce occupational safety and health laws and regulations."