Firm in Fatal J.F.K. Trench Collapse Broke Safety Rules, Officials Say

Two construction workers killed in a trench collapse at Kennedy International Airport in April died while removing soil from beneath a concrete slab that the Bronx firm employing them failed to prop up, officials said on Tuesday.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the firm, Triumph Construction, with four serious safety violations in the April 3 collapse, including failing to properly support the slab and failing to instruct the workers on how to safely dig beneath it.

The workers, Francisco Reyes, 41, and Fernando Lagunas Pereira, 28, were moving utility lines as part of a broader, $19 billion J.F.K. improvement project when they were buried under construction rubble, officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, said at the time. Both men were declared dead at the scene.

OSHA’s findings on Tuesday were the fifth time since 2008 that Triumph had been cited for failing to adequately protect workers doing excavation-related work, according to agency records. In 2014, records show, a worker was seriously hurt when he was trapped beneath chunks of concrete after a trench caved in at a Triumph site in Manhattan.

Triumph has an opportunity to formally respond to OSHA’s findings related to the April collapse and to the $59,153 in fines the agency has proposed. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

At the time of the J.F.K. collapse, Triumph said in a statement that it was “heartbroken” over the two men’s deaths and that “the safety of our employees is always our top priority.”

A spokesman for Laborers’ Local 731, the union to which the men belonged, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Reyes was a 10-year Local 731 member at the time of his death; Mr. Pereira had just recently joined the union.

In an interview in April, Mr. Pereira’s mother, Guadalupe Pereira, said the family had moved to the United States from Mexico 25 years ago. Her son’s life, she said, consisted of working, eating and spending time with his family and his chocolate Lab, Negrita.

“He was a worker,” Ms. Pereira said. “It was his life.”

In a statement posted online in April, the union said that “the goal of all laborers is to return to your loved ones at the end of the day the way you left them.”

“When that does not happen, it is a tragedy that hits too close to home,” the statement added.

The Port Authority also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the wake of the collapse, the agency suspended work on Triumph’s $49 million contract while the health administration’s investigation proceeded.

Experts consider excavation-related fatalities preventable if the appropriate steps are taken to shore up trench walls. Still, such deaths have been a persistent problem in the construction industry in recent years.

The health administration cited an “alarming rise” in trench fatalities in a news release last year, when there were 39 such deaths in the United States. As of last week, there had been 12 trench deaths in the country this year, an agency spokesman said.

Deaths resulting from trench collapses have sometimes led to criminal prosecutions. In March, a contractor was convicted of homicide in the 2018 death of a 47-year-old construction worker who was crushed beneath 15,000 pounds of building materials in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park section.

The conviction came a few months after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation that significantly increased fines faced by companies for construction incidents that result in criminal convictions. The law was prompted by the 2015 death of a construction worker in a trench collapse in Manhattan.

A spokesman for Melinda Katz, the Queens district attorney, said in April that the office was exploring the possibility of criminal charges in the J.F.K. collapse. He said on Tuesday that the investigation was continuing.

In the 2014 collapse at a Triumph site in Manhattan, a laborer named Luis Luna was buried up to his neck when a four-foot-wide trench caved in on him on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.

A Triumph foreman had sent Mr. Luna, 42 at the time, down into the trench after a backhoe encountered an obstruction while digging around an old water main. Mr. Luna was digging with a shovel when one side of the trench failed, raining soil and chunks of pavement onto him.

Three of his co-workers climbed down to save him. One slab of pavement was so heavy that the rescuers had to wrap a chain around it so a backhoe could lift it off him. A federal inspector who arrived at the site about an hour later found no shoring, sheeting or other cave-in protection system in the trench, records show.

Mr. Luna, who declined to discuss the matter when contacted this summer, required surgery on his arm, back and abdomen, but he survived. Working for the same company nine years later, Mr. Reyes and Mr. Pereira were not so fortunate.

Wesley Parnell contributed reporting, and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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