It’s a situation many emergency officials train for, but one that those who have experienced firsthand hope to never encounter again.
This hypothetical became reality for the Starkville Fire Department and other area agencies Tuesday as a trench collapse at a Starkville construction site killed two workers from Alabama, but not before prompting a large-scale rescue operation for one man who later died after being airlifted to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.
Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt identified the victims as 19-year-old William Kizzire and 36-year-old Zachary Wayne Osbourn. The two men, who were employees of the Tuscaloosa-based firm Southern Civil Contracting, Inc., were reportedly in the trench laying sewer pipe.
As investigators work to make sense of the accident, fire and rescue officials sat down with the Starkville Daily News on Wednesday to provide a detailed breakdown of the operation from start to finish, along with providing further information concerning the trench collapse.
'A TEDIOUS PROCESS'
The call of the accident at a construction site off of South Montgomery Street near the intersection of Lynn Lane came in around 10 a.m. Shortly thereafter, numerous agencies converged on the construction site where a new subdivision is being built adjacent to the Maison de Ville gated community.
Starkville Fire Marshal Mark McCurdy said, once on scene, officials found one man, later identified as 36-year-old Zachary Wayne Osbourn, of Fayette County, Alabama, had been killed by a large slab of chalk that broke away from the side of the trench.
Starkville Fire Chief Charles Yarbrough says a trench collapsed at the site, killing one person and injuring a 19 year old. He says the company is from Tuscaloosa pic.twitter.com/a8KlygFyuL— Ryan Phillips (@JournoRyan) May 19, 2020
In photos, a smooth break in the rock is readily noticeable, underscoring the size and quick movement of the trench wall when it collapsed.
Osbourn was pronounced dead at the scene and efforts immediately turned to another trapped worker roughly 20 feet away in the trench in the opposite direction.
The trapped worker was identified as 19-year-old William Kizzire, also of Fayette County, who died from his injuries after being removed from the trench and transported by UMMC AirCare to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.
Out here at Lynn Lane and S Montgomery where the road is blocked as emergency crews deal with a construction accident. I’ll have more as details come available pic.twitter.com/kiYdNyVNsM— Ryan Phillips (@JournoRyan) May 19, 2020
Edwards said the exact dimensions of the chalk rock that broke loose were not taken, but did say, through his own research, he confirmed the weight of the type of chalk found at the construction site is roughly 125-130 pounds per cubic foot. However, despite the weight of the rock, Edwards also pointed out that it is extremely brittle, thus making an unstable situation that much more cumbersome for first responders fearing another cave-in.
In all, the rescue effort to get Kizzire out of the trench took roughly two and a half hours.
“They put an oxygen mask on him and our paramedics tried to get IVs in his arms, but they weren’t successful,” McCurdy said. “[Kizzire’s] dad stayed down there and talked to him the whole time as we basically tried to get this big, huge rock off of him.”
He then praised the efforts of the paramedics to provide aid to the man. Numerous attempts by different paramedics were made to secure an IV for Kizzire, McCurdy said, with the hope that different sets of eyes on the situation would produce the best possible outcome.
McCurdy said Kizzire’s lower body was trapped by the broken rock at the bottom of the trench. This prompted the rescue effort that saw firefighters and other emergency officials commence the delicate process of reinforcing the walls and digging Kizzire out by hand.
SFD Lt. Justin Edwards was in the trench during the operation and is actively involved with the Mississippi Department of Homeland Security Task Force, which trains and specializes in a wide range of rescue operations.
“It’s a slow, tedious process, because, if I put you in dirt and start wailing away on a jackhammer, first of all, how am I going to know if I hit you, until it’s too late?” Edwards said. “You have to take that into consideration, it’s just a slow process, by hand.”
McCurdy went on to explain that as emergency crews went down into the trench, keeping the walls secure and dirt from filling the trench became the top priority for those not directly working to free the trapped man.
“It’s like when you go to the beach and you’re building a sand castle,” McCurdy said. “As you dig the hole, more sand falls in. In this case, you can’t have the sand fall back in because we have people in there.”
The early phases of the rescue operation required improvisation on the part of first responders, McCurdy said, as the initial effort saw the Jaws of Life and ply boards used by rescue workers to shore up the walls of the trench until the city of Columbus brought its equipment trailer.
Edwards said the Columbus Fire Department operates the response trailer day-to-day for the Task Force, but the equipment contained inside serves as a cache of resources to aid area agencies in efforts related to hazardous materials and structural collapse, among other potential issues.
IN THE TRENCH
Once the situation at hand was better understood by those at the scene, the effort began of digging by hand and reinforcing the trench’s walls.
As the rescue wore on, McCurdy said the build out of equipment supporting the trench walls became much more sophisticated, especially after additional equipment was brought from Columbus.
Edwards elaborated by saying rescue workers then implemented air shores to brace the walls by pushing up against three quarter-inch ply boards. Air shoring is a technology that allows the user to span the width of the trench from wall to wall, providing additional cave-in support.
On the surface, special care was also taken to further preserve the structural integrity of the trench.
Along the edges, Edwards and others placed ply boards out flat to further distribute the weight of those on the surface who worked along the sides of the compromised trench.
“To disburse our weight, we already know it’s unstable, it’s why we’re there, so when you’re walking on it, the pounds per square inch (PSI) on your foot is in this small area, but you step on plywood and it moves the PSI across the whole four-by-eight sheet.”
The boards were provided by Bell Building Supply after being contacted by the SFD.
Close quarters, though, made for challenging work for first responders, with the trench roughly three feet wide.
Rescue crews worked pragmatically to free Kizzire and no avenues were left unchecked, according to Edwards, as emergency officials tried their best to be creative and, most importantly, safe, in their approach.
Every movement conducted below the surface was well-communicated and purposeful, Edwards said, all working toward the extraction and getting the man lifted out of the trench.
“You’ve got people sitting there that are digging and you have the paramedic taking care of the gentleman,” Edwards said, describing the scene at the bottom of the trench. “We were getting close to extraction and we’re going to need people to be able to move the backboard. Each person has their section.”
When Kizzire was finally pulled from under the rock after two and a half hours, Edwards explained the next phase of the operation to get the man out of the trench.
“Once we get him on that backboard, we are coming up with a game-plan,” Edwards said. “Then, we actually have to start moving him. There’s people working and you’re working on the next step for when you’re needed.”
Also going on during the rescue portion of the operation was monitoring of gas levels in the trench by McCurdy, as equipment and generators ran for various uses by emergency officials at the construction site.
“We had to have an air monitor down there,” McCurdy said. “There were at least two gas monitors on each end to monitor gas levels. If we’re running a generator or something like that, before long you have everybody down there, if they get sick, then you’ve taken out five or six guys.”
Someone was just brought out on a stretcher and is being loaded into the helicopter to be flown to Tupelo. pic.twitter.com/ua62S17rAy— Ryan Phillips (@JournoRyan) May 19, 2020
A group of roughly a dozen emergency workers could be seen as they carried Kizzire on a stretcher to the UMMC AirCare helicopter. What was initially viewed as a small moment of triumph during a tragic event would ultimately bring more heartbreak as Kizzire died shortly thereafter from his injuries.
Once the helicopter was in the air, first responders on scene gathered for a chat and a prayer before the effort shifted to a recovery operation to retrieve Osbourn’s body from under a rock that Edwards described as “larger than a SUV.”
“I would have never thought the chalk would actually slip with a spot that big,” he said. “It was just right and when it sheared, it shot down into the trench.”
To make matters worse, multiple sources confirmed to the Starkville Daily News that the company had not used a trench box or other protective systems in the area where the trench collapsed.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires protective systems such as trench boxes for trenches five feet deep or greater, unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock.
Starkville Fire Chief Charles Yarbrough confirmed to the Starkville Daily News on Tuesday that the men were roughly 10-12 feet below the surface in a trench dug by the Tuscaloosa firm.
Edwards said, in his opinion, a trench box protecting the men would have made a difference in the safety of the workers.
The recovery effort, McCurdy said, proved to be a more difficult process than the initial rescue operation, with the size of the rock, the position of the victim and the instability of the trench all factoring in to the nuanced approach by first responders.
Edwards went on to say that even before additional personnel arrived on scene, they were aware of the danger of further collapse and planned to minimize any risks, especially during the recovery effort.
First responders then incorporated the excavators on site to dig a circle around the rock, forming tiers to further protect workers from trench collapse as they tried to retrieve the body.
“We’re trying to make it like a set of stairs, cut it back and cut it back, so you add more safety and take more of the risk out,” Edwards said.
Osbourn’s body was eventually recovered around 8 p.m. Tuesday night after responders resorted to using jackhammers to break up the massive piece of chalk.
“Patience is important,” Edwards said. “But the safety factor that you have to reach before you can even get to the rescue or recovery, so much of it is about first getting the scene stabilized.”
McCurdy confirmed an investigator from OSHA was immediately contacted and was at the site shortly after Kizzire was removed from the trench.
OSHA was still in Starkville as of Wednesday, McCurdy said.
A COLLECTIVE EFFORT
During the worst of times, McCurdy said people tend to come together, which was in evidence by the actions of several local businesses and agencies once they heard the news of the accident.
McCurdy said the department wanted to show its gratitude to everyone that provided supplies like food and drinks for responders during the emergency.
One much-appreciated contribution came from Bell Building Supply, who provided the boards used to reinforce the trench walls and protect the surface above ground after being contacted by the SFD.
“We also want to give a special thank you to Wes Shelton and Bell Building Supply for all the materials provided,” he said. “We could not have done it without their support. Also, thank you to Papa John's pizza and Domino's pizza for providing food to all the first responders working the scene.”
Edwards said the group effort by the various agencies was successful in its coordination and execution, despite the end result.
“Due to the fact that every couple months, we do some type of training [with the Task Force], so some of the guys they send over, we already know, so we can call them,” Edwards said. “You’ve got guys that come off our trucks and they had to improvise a lot of stuff to get going, just to get to the patient. As far as Columbus coming, Highway Patrol, we were all working on a team, all working for the common goal.”
Other responding agencies included the Columbus Fire Department, Columbus Police Department, Starkville Police Department, Pafford EMS, OCH Regional Medical Center, UMMC AirCare, Oktibbeha EOC/911, the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office, Mississippi Highway Patrol Troop G, and the city of Starkville’s engineering and street department.
“It really was a team effort and we are very proud and thankful to know that we live in a community that has local businesses that are willing to help out so generously in an emergency situation,” McCurdy said.
McCurdy went on to say the effort will also prove a valuable learning experience for all involved.
“Thankfully, we didn’t have any problems as far as further collapse, all of that went well,” he said. “As well as it went, we learned stuff. We learned, God forbid it never happens again, but 20 years ago it was the Highlands [when a trench collapse occurred]. There’s plenty of stuff that we can take and learn from this.”
Yarbrough also had high praise for responders, including his own firefighters and paramedics.
"Everyone there provided input and major effort to get the job done,” he said. “Even though we are saddened by the outcome, we are thankful to The Lord that no one else was injured.”