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OSHA opens investigation into fatal Rapid City trench collapse

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it’s opened an investigation into a Rapid City trench collapse that trapped two workers, including one who died Monday afternoon.

As of Tuesday afternoon, neither the names of the workers or the company involved had been released.

The Rapid City Fire Department can’t release the information because it’s classified as a medical agency that’s subject to privacy rules, said spokeswoman Tessa Jaeger. She said sharing the name of the company would disclose the victims' identities. OSHA said it's still working on confirming the names of the company and workers. 

The accident occurred in the driveway of an unoccupied home on Coal Bank Drive between Auburn Drive and Misty Woods. It’s located in far northern Rapid City in Auburn Hills, a subdivision off Haines Avenue that has new homes and apartment buildings.

Residents walked their dogs through the neighborhood Tuesday morning as construction workers worked on nearby homes. The house where the accident occurred has an "under contract" sign and is surrounded by other buildings and empty lots that have yet to be developed.

The trench was covered with wooden planks but appeared to be as narrow as three feet in some places. A pile of dirt and concrete plates removed during the excavation sat around the ditch, which is now fenced off with bright orange netting. There were sandbags around the ditch and a small backhoe that had its excavator bucket hovering over the trench.

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Boards cover the trench that collapsed Monday night in Rapid City.

Cody Eagle Boy, Bobbett Good Shield and their daughter Fayleen walked from their nearby apartment to pray.

“It’s sad” to happen during “this time of year, Christmas,” Eagle Boy said of the accident. “If he has a family we’re praying for them and praying for him too,” he said before burning sage next to the trench.

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Cody Eagle Boy burns sage at the site of a trench collapse on Tuesday in Rapid City.

Precautions needed

Trenching, or creating a narrow excavation, is a dangerous activity if not done properly, according to OSHA’s Trenching and Excavation Safety publication. Cave-ins or collapses are the greatest risk and can be fatal since one cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as a car.

Trenches that are at least five-feet deep — like the one on Coal Bank Drive — must follow OSHA safety regulations unless they are made of stable rock. Regulations can include sloping the sides of the excavation and using a trench box or shield.

The accident was reported just before 4 p.m. Monday, Jaeger said. A police officer and medic responded and found the men trapped in a large dirt pile in a trench that's 15 feet long, six feet wide and five feet deep.

First responders were able to rescue the man submerged up to his chest, but the other man was buried, Jaeger said. The fire department, city water division, and Pennington County Search and Rescue worked for nearly five hours before recovering the body around 8:45 p.m.

The men were working on a sewer line when the trench collapsed, Jaeger said. She and OSHA said they could not yet comment on what exactly they were doing at the time of the collapse, what went wrong and how they became trapped.

OSHA must complete the investigation within six months. 

Dale Tech, director of Public Works, said the men were working on a private sewer line that connects to the city's line. He said the Water Division arrived with a vacuum truck to help remove dirt.

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Rapid City's vacuum truck helps suck up dirt Tuesday evening as rescuers work to recover the worker who died. 

“It’s a huge, huge machine,” he said of the barrel-shaped truck. “Imagine your vacuum cleaner at home but 1,000 times the size. They’re quite large and they can pick up loose materials from rocks to mud to dirt.”

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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