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Department of Public Works Worker and a Volunteer Firefighter Died in a Sewer Manhole

New York Case Report: 10NY060

The following report is the product of our Cooperative State partner and is presented here in its original unedited form from the state. The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the individual Cooperative State partner and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


In September 2010, a 48 year-old male worker (Victim I) employed by a village Department of Public Works (DPW) and a 51 year-old male volunteer firefighter (Victim II) of the village Fire Department (FD) died after entering a sewer manhole. The manhole was located behind the fire house. The Fire Chief and a firefighter were called in by the DPW general foreman (GF) to unlock the firehouse and move the fire truck so it would not be blocked by the DPW utility truck while working at the manhole. Victim II also arrived to offer assistance. The manhole was five feet in diameter and 18 feet deep with an opening 24 inches in diameter (see photo). Victim I started climbing down the metal rungs on the manhole wall wearing a Tyvek suit and work boots in an attempt to clear a sewer blockage. The DPW GF, the firefighter and Victim II walked over to observe. They saw Victim I lying on the manhole floor motionless. They speculated that he had slipped and fallen off the rungs and injured himself. The Fire Chief immediately called for an ambulance. Meanwhile, Victim II entered the manhole to rescue Victim I without wearing any respiratory protection. The firefighter saw that Victim II fell off the rungs backwards while he was half way down and informed the Fire Chief. The Fire Chief immediately called for a second ambulance and summoned the village FD to respond. The FD responders arrived within minutes. The Assistant Fire Chief (AFC) donned a self-contained breathing apparatus. He could not go through the manhole opening with the air cylinder on his back. The cylinder was tied to a rope that was held by the assisting firefighters at the ground level. The AFC entered the manhole with the cylinder suspended above his head. He did not wear a lifeline although there was a tripod retrieval system. He secured Victim II with a rope that was attached to the tripod. Victim II was successfully lifted out of the manhole. The AFC exited the manhole before a second rescuer entered the manhole and extricated Victim I in the same manner. Both victims were transported to an emergency medical center where they were pronounced dead an hour later. The cause of death for both victims was asphyxia due to low oxygen and exposure to sewer gases.

A Department of Public Works Worker and a Volunteer Firefighter Died in a Sewer Manhole [PDF 394 KB]