Tarrytown, NY, September 13, 2010 — On September 6, 2010, as most of us were celebrating Labor Day by not working, Anthony Ruggerio, a DPW worker from Tarrytown, and John Kelly, a volunteer firefighter, also from Tarrytown, lost their lives in what can only be described as a series of unfortunate events. In the days following this tragedy, there have been countless discussions about this incident in the form of rumors, innuendo, and criticism, and of course our old friend, finger pointing blame.
On the day of the tragedy, the deceased were lauded as heroes by the community and its municipal leaders. By Thursday September 9th, the same leaders held a press conference and the waffling began. Tarrytown Village Administrator Michael Blau laid out a timeline that ultimately ended with two deaths. After reviewing the press conference several times, what Mr. Blau was really doing was laying the groundwork to indemnify the village from any culpability in this accident.
The initial call to the Tarrytown Police Department by a resident reporting a sewage problem occurred at 3:45PM. The Tarrytown Police in turned called the Department of Public Works and relayed the homeowner’s concern. After speaking with the homeowner, DPW Supervisor Scott Weaver called in a crew that included Anthony Ruggerio to remedy the situation. According to the Village Administrator, Supervisor Weaver remained at the DPW garage to do some paperwork. This is the first troubling admission from the village. Our question is why didn’t the supervisor accompany his crew on the call? Even on a routine call, it seems as if the Supervisor should act as an incident commander. Again, according to the village’s statement, Mr. Weaver didn’t arrive on the scene until 5:22 PM, doing so at the request of Mr. Ruggerio.
By the time 5:30 PM rolled around it appears that this “routine”job was turning into anything but routine. The blockage was bigger than originally thought and the original vacuum truck brought in to clear the blockage was too large to get up an embankment to the manhole. The sewer pipe and subsequent manhole ran under the firehouse and the DPW needed access to the firehouse. At 5:51 PM a call was made to the fire chief for a driver to remove the apparatus from the firehouse so the DPW crew could check for sewer back up there. A driver arrived at 6:00 PM to roll the trucks out; a driver, Asst. Fire Chief and the DPW Supervisor remained on the ramp chatting while the DPW crew set about working on the problem. Eventually, the fire chief, the DPW foreman, Supervisor Weaver, among others, climbed the hill to the manhole. Mr. Kelly was watching ;but in the capacity of a friend. And if you’re questioning why Kelly was there well if you knew him, you would know he always had a portable scanner on his person and more than likely heard the DPW dispatched to the area near one of the village’s firehouses.
At this time, the original call was over two hours old and was no where close to being rectified. Though trained in confined space protocol through the DPW and the fire department, Mr. Ruggerio opened the manhole and looked in where he saw some paper in the sewer line. He never used a gas meter to test the air, and never vented the open manhole with a fan. One must believe that he felt that this paper could be the cause of the blockage and down he went with a shovel to clear it. Sadly enough, it appears that he succumbed to a noxious gas believed to be hydrogen sulfide almost immediately. In the ensuing minutes that passed, John Kelly walked over to the manhole to presumably see how Ruggerio was progressing. Witnesses report that when Kelly shouted that Ruggerio had fallen to the bottom and looked to be unconscious, a mad dash began to facilitate his rescue. While waiting for SCBA and a rope, John Kelly made a spur of the moment decision to enter the manhole without any protective breathing apparatus. That decision cost him his life. Recovery of the two men was executed by Assistant Chief Gene Gasparre and Lt. Felix Sartario employing their SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) and additional oxygen for the victims.
As the story unfolded, Mayor Drew Fixell and Village Administrator Michael Blau lauded the deceased men as heroes who died while serving the Village of Tarrytown. However, by Thursday September 9th, Mr. Blau’s press conference on behalf of the village was anything but laudatory. Mr. Blau announced that eighteen members of the Department of Public Works had successfully completed a confined space seminar and were mask fit tested. As a result of this course, the village had acquired a tripod, a harness, a fan and SCBA and of course a gas meter. The press conference never revealed whether Mr. Ruggerio had completed this course.
The press conference did reveal that while the Village of Tarrytown had indeed sent their DPW workers for a confined space seminar, there is no written SOP (protocol) for workers to follow. Mr. Blau stated that “People who have gone through the training are aware of what they have to do”. Well, in this case one would guess that they didn’t or there wouldn’t have been two fatalities.
Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH), along with the Village of Tarrytown and the Westchester County District Attorney have launched a full investigation into this accident. It will be weeks before we get a final report but one can surmise that there is culpability of all parties involved. For the Village of Tarrytown to hold a press conference less than 72 hours after the incident was at the very least insensitive. We may never know why Anthony Ruggerio didn’t take the necessary precautions that would have saved his life.
The same can be said of Firefighter John Kelly. Human nature is comprised of some odd characteristic. Inherently, the first reaction most people have in a crisis is that we want to help. We may “know what to do” from our training but when we need to help, all of that training seems to go right out the window. We may never hear why his foreman, Scott Weaver, didn’t accompany his crew to the job site to ensure that protocol and safety measures were being followed. I am sure Supervisor Weaver replays his actions that day over and over.
The Village of Tarrytown, still mourning the loss of two community members, must forget about pointing fingers and concentrate on making sure this never happens again.
Nancy King has joined the staff of the Yonkers Tribune, and the Westchester Herald.