Fatal South Huntingdon trench collapse labeled accident by police

Recent trench collapse fatalities: • Two workers were killed in October when a fire hydrant collapsed in Boston and flooded the 14-foot-deep hole where they were working. The company's owner was arraigned on manslaughter and related charges Thursday.•...

Fatal South Huntingdon trench collapse labeled accident by police

Recent trench collapse fatalities:

• Two workers were killed in October when a fire hydrant collapsed in Boston and flooded the 14-foot-deep hole where they were working. The company's owner was arraigned on manslaughter and related charges Thursday.

• An Ohio company installing a residential sewer line was cited by OSHA after a worker was killed in June when the walls of a 12-foot trench caved in.

• A 14-foot-deep trench collapsed, killing a worker in April 2015 in New York. A Long Island contractor was convicted of manslaughter.

• A worker repairing a sewer line outside a personal care home in Butler County died when an 11-foot-deep trench collapsed.

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Updated 4 minutes ago

The day after a fatal trench collapse in South Huntingdon, state police said they determined it was an accident.

“No criminal investigation is being conducted at this time,” Trooper Stefani Lucas said Thursday.

Investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration continue to look into the circumstances surrounding Wednesday's death of Adam Skokut Jr., 18, and expect to issue a report in about 60 days.

Skokut died when the walls of a 10-foot-deep trench collapsed on him as he and his father worked to install a septic system at a property outside Smithton owned by Adam Skokut Sr.

Local firefighters said Skokut Jr. was in the 30-inch-wide trench at 9:30 a.m. when it began to fill with water and a wall of wet, clay-based soil trapped him inside. It took rescuers about three hours to shore up the trench walls and remove the teen's body.

Civil engineering expert J. David Gardner said that type of soil is typical to Western Pennsylvania, which can make trenches more prone to collapsing. Gardner works for Robson Forensic, a forensic engineering firm with offices in Pittsburgh as well as across Pennsylvania and the country.

“When you are digging for a trench to install a utility pipe, for a deck, whatever it is, the overall stability of the trench depends upon the soil you're digging in,” Gardner said.

OSHA requires trenches deeper than 5 feet to use a protective system unless the excavation site is entirely in stable rock. Shields provide stability to vertical walls and are designed differently based on the type of soil and depth, Gardner said. Fire officials indicated that a protective system was not used at the South Huntingdon trench.

Another option is to create sloped sides for a trench deeper than 5 feet.

“When you dig the earth, that earth has been together for millions of years,” Gardner said. “Its support has been removed.”

Trench collapses can happen quickly and have deadly consequences, Gardner said.

“When a trench collapses, it collapses without warning,” he said.

Skokut Sr. operates A-Affordable Sanitation Inc., which is based near the scene of the trench collapse along Fitz Henry Road. The company does sewer, septic and drain work, according to its website. An OSHA database shows no prior citations for the company.

Wall collapse is the primary cause of fatalities and injuries in trenches, according to OSHA. Between 2011 and 2015, 94 people died in the United States from an excavation or trench cave-in, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2016, 23 U.S. workers died and 12 were injured in collapses.

The county's Trench Rescue and Structural Collapse Team, composed of members of five area fire departments, used thick wooden panels Wednesday to stabilize the walls of the South Huntingdon trench to allow for a safe recovery, said Bill Watkins, a team coordinator and Crabtree fire chief.

The team doesn't get calls very often, and Watkins estimated that it's been about five years since members responded to an emergency.

“It's a specialized type of a rescue that requires specialized training that the average firefighter and EMS person does not have,” he said.

The team formed in the 1980s has responded to emergencies in Westmoreland and neighboring counties. A couple of members helped during the 2002 rescue of nine miners in Quecreek, Somerset County.

Skokut Jr. graduated from Yough Senior High School last year.

His viewing will be Friday from noon-8 p.m. and Saturday from 9-11 a.m. at Bible Alliance Church in South Huntingdon, near Turkeytown. The funeral service will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at the church.

Dodson Funeral Home in West Newton is in charge of arrangements.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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