Russell Watson and his co-workers were getting ready to call it a day at their South Toledo construction site yesterday afternoon when something went horribly wrong.
Mr. Watson was standing on one of two halves of a lid that covers a 35-foot-deep construction access shaft at Walbridge Avenue and Champion Street. At about 3:30 p.m., a crane maneuvering the lid's other half into place dislodged Mr. Watson's half. It tipped, dumping the 45-year-old Belmont Avenue man into the abyss.
A little more than an hour later, rescue workers hoisted Mr. Watson's lifeless body from the bottom of the shaft, where he had landed face down in about three feet of icy water.
Authorities were unsure last night whether Mr. Watson died from the fall or drowned but said they worked as fast as they could to get him out. The Toledo fire department summoned an aerial ladder truck to use as a makeshift crane to lower two water-rescue specialists into the shaft, then lift everyone out.
“The only access to the shaft was from above,” said Battalion Chief Luis Santiago, head of the fire department's confined spaces unit. The chief said it was “hard to speculate” about whether Mr. Watson might have survived had rescuers been able to get to him sooner.
“We did act with a sense of urgency - at the same time [being] as safe as we could with our rescuers,” Deputy Fire Chief John Coleman said.
Upon reaching Mr. Watson's body, Chief Coleman noted, rescuers observed visible injuries, and he was declared dead at the scene.
Linda Watson, a sister, said Mr. Watson, a Toledo native who attended Libbey and Macomber Vocational high schools, was divorced and had three children, the youngest of whom is 15. Mr. Watson had been living at his parents' home at 1145 Belmont.
Ms. Watson said her brother was a member of Laborers' Union Local 500 for about 25 years. He loved his work so much, she said, that he returned even after being injured several years ago at a construction site cave-in in Maumee.
Robert Hannon, an investigator with the Lucas County coroner's office, said an autopsy will be conducted this morning.
The shaft, about 12 feet in diameter, was one of a series that Ric-Man Construction, Inc., of Sterling Heights, Mich., has dug along the route of a new trunk sewer line that is being installed across Toledo's near south end. The shafts are used as access points into which construction materials are lowered. They are then installed by tunneling.
A woman answering the phone at the company's offices in Michigan declined to comment and would not suggest anyone who could. Workers at the scene also declined to comment on the accident.
Bill Wiggins, a safety specialist with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said he had little to report after his 6:30 p.m. arrival at the scene. Mr. Wiggins said his role will be to interview other workers and inspect and photograph the site, then make a report to his superiors at OSHA's Toledo office.
“I'll be putting the pieces together,” Mr. Wiggins said. “We want to make sure this type of situation doesn't happen again to somebody else.”
Chief Santiago said rescues of the sort required are “uncommon,” but the department does occasionally practice such situations.
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