Updated 09/19/13 – 5:17 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — A sewer worker’s greatest fear became reality Wednesday night, when he drowned after he was swept away by rushing storm waters, and his widow had to find out about her husband’s tragic death on Facebook.
“This is not happening. I can’t believe it. I cannot,” Sandra Hernandez said. “That was his biggest fear, to die down there.”
CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports Hernandez’s husband, 25-year-old Gustavo Briceno, was pronounced dead late Wednesday night, after he apparently drowned while working on a sewer relining project in Avondale.
Briceno, a father of three, worked for Kenny Construction Co. for seven years, according to Hernandez. She said her husband’s greatest fear was drowning in a sewer. He leaves behind his wife and three children, ages 3, 4, and 8.
“He was a great father, and he was such a hard worker,” she said
Hernandez said her husband was devoted to his family until his final day, walking his kids to school and taking her out to breakfast before he went to work. She said he called her around 7 p.m., but she missed the call. When she tried to reach him by phone and text, she knew something was wrong when she got no response.
She said she learned about her husband’s death on Facebook, and she said the company has yet to reach out to her, or offer an explanation of what happened.
Kenny spokesperson Jacque Fourchy said, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our co-workers last night. Gustavo Briceno, Jr. was a valued member of our team. The cause of the incident is not known at this time. Kenny Construction places the highest value on safety. We are working cooperatively with authorities on the investigation. Our focus right now is on supporting Gustavo’s family, his friends and all of our employees who have been affected.”
However, Fourchy offered no explanation for why the company did not contact Hernandez sooner.
A Kenny maintenance crew was relining a sewer near Elston Avenue and Rockwell Street on Wednesday, when heavy storms began rolling through. The crew kept working underground as the sewer began filling with water.
Briceno was lining a sewer with styrene plastic, when storm water swept him away around 8:30 p.m.
Chicago Fire Department Special Operations Chief Michael Fox said, when the crew above ground lost contact with Briceno, they called 911, and used an underwater camera to search.
“When we got here, we found that the contractor was using a camera as part of their normal work, so we kept using the camera to search for the man,” Fox said.
Some feared Briceno’s body would be swept into Lake Michigan, but Fox said the worker’s body lodged near Barry Avenue and Rockwell Street, approximately a block from where he entered the sewer. Once the Kenny camera spotted the body, a Fire Department diver entered the sewer to retrieve it, shortly before 11 p.m.
Chicago Water Management Dept. spokesman Tom LaPorte said the sewer lining project the crew was conducting is something that has been done with hundreds of miles of city sewers without incident.
Fox said Briceno wore a wetsuit, but said firefighters could find no breathing apparatus.
While Fox said the “confined rescue” process was unusual, he said it is one that the department practices regularly.
However, he was at a loss to explain why the crew kept working after the rain started.
“I would assume with the water that was going in the sewer, they would know it was raining pretty hard here,” Fox said. “We never did get an answer on that. They knew there was a rush of water, so they knew it was a torrential rain.”
Hernandez said the company usually halts any sewer work if there’s a storm, and she can’t understand why the crew kept working Wednesday night, despite the heavy rain.
CBS 2’s Dave Savini reports that OSHA has launched an investigation into the death of Briceno. One thing that they are investigating is whether he released his safety harness as some are saying.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Kenny Construction has been cited three times in the past 10 years for inspection violations; including problems with wiring design, accident prevention signage, and fall protection violations. Minor fines were issued in each case.
Kenny’s parent company, Granite Construction, has no OSHA violations in the past 10 years in Illinois, though it has several in various other states.
Back in the 1990’s, three Kenny Construction employees were killed within six months of each other.
In 1996, in Illinois a worker went into a manhole with little oxygen and was asphyxiated. Another man was crushed to death at a different job site that year.
Then in 1997, in Wisconsin, a worker fell twenty feet to his death.
Kenny Construction was ordered to pay a $175,000 OSHA fine and had to make worker safety improvements.