Editor's Note: This series of articles examines the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities in the United States. Click here to see the full set of articles in this series.
From 28 feet above him, Casey Rady heard his boss shout.
"Get in the trench box!"
Fifteen feet above him, a long horizontal crack formed in the excavation wall.
"I glanced up to see what was going on," Rady recalls, "and I could see pieces of it cracking, and it was like a whole shelf started to come loose." Panic set in.
"Which way do we go?" he recalls thinking. Standing in 6 to 8 inches of water, he spotted an extra section of 4-foot-diameter plastic pipe floating in the trench box. He grabbed the sleeve of his childhood friend and co-worker Dave Erickson and dragged him toward the pipe, hoping to find protection from the ensuing collapse.
As he ducked to enter the pipe, he lost his grip on Erickson’s sleeve. Rady looked back. Erickson stood in the trench box as if frozen, staring up at the collapsing wall. As the wall of dirt caved in on them, so did a large spoil pile that was less than 2 feet from the edge of the excavation.
The closeness of the pile was one of many safety violations OSHA would cite Rady and Erickson’s employer, Vortex Drain Tiling, with following the June 13, 2016, collapse in Blue Earth County, Minnesota.
Investigators said the lack of planning and safety precautions by Vortex owner Ryan Safranski set the stage for catastrophe – an avoidable cave-in that ended with the company’s demise and a 28-year-old decorated war veteran buried alive. It was the last time Rady saw his best friend alive.
He was 7 or 8 years old when he first met Erickson, who was two years younger. Soon, they were playing Little League in the small community of Ironwood on Michigan’s western edge and hunting and fishing together. Erickson’s mother and father became like second parents to Rady. His parents held the same role for Erickson. As teens, they worked at a local car wash, spending their earnings on four-wheelers and snowmobiles, which they constantly had to fix. Erickson was a motor head, always tinkering.
Two years after high school graduation, Erickson joined the Army. As a parting gift, he gave his analog Fossil watch to Rady before heading to basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He went on to serve two tours in Afghanistan as a combat medic in the 10th Mountain Division, earning a dozen medals and ribbons, including two Army Commendation Medals. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant Nov. 19, 2014.
After Erickson returned to Ironwood, Rady helped him settle into an apartment.
Erickson still enjoyed four-wheeling, and he rode motorcycles. He loved to cook and was known for his big smile.
"He was probably one of the biggest goofballs you’d ever meet," Rady says.
"Everything was a joke, and I’m the same way, so we got along great. And anybody that was around us felt it; it just shed out. Everybody was in a better mood because he was there."
Rady had been working for Vortex Drain Tiling of Grand Forks, North Dakota, for about six months. He offered Erickson a full-time job on his crew in the fall of 2015, with plans to train him to become a heavy equipment operator.
"I promised his mom and dad that I would keep him safe," Rady recalls.
In May 2016, Erickson and Rady started work on Blue Earth County Ditch 28 near tiny Madelia, Minnesota. An old 36-inch steel drainage pipe had collapsed, stopping the water flow and flooding farms. The small Vortex crew was installing new drain tile and connecting two drainage ditches that flowed to the Watonwan River.
The new dual-wall polypropylene pipe was 48 inches in diameter and 3 inches thick. Vortex owner Safranski anticipated a November completion date for the project, which involved installing two miles of drain tile and reconnecting to existing pipe.
Erickson and Rady liked working in the countryside, away from traffic.
"There’s a lot of days where it was so wet it was just him and me and dozers," recalls Rady. "He would be in a D7 and I’d be in a D9, and it’d just be fun, like when we were four-wheeling. We had radios. We were getting work done. I was showing him how to run equipment, and he was getting some good seat time."
Working 330 miles from Ironwood, they roomed together at a motel in the Madelia area. Sometimes at night, they confided in each other. Erickson told Rady about his post-traumatic stress disorder since serving in Afghanistan, where he stitched up the wounded, amputated limbs, comforted the dying.
Though the two friends found peacefulness and even good times together on the jobsite, their days were often punctuated by problems getting money from Safranski for needed supplies, Rady says.
"We were supposed to have silt fencing up because of all the rain and runoff," Rady says. "I was never able to get that."
The money problems cropped up "on a day-to-day basis," he adds. "I couldn’t get fuel. We couldn’t get motel rooms." So Rady would charge motel rooms on his credit card and sometimes get reimbursed, and he’d pay for fuel.
Erosion was another problem, says Chuck Brandel, an agricultural drainage expert and president of ISG, the engineering firm hired by Blue Earth County for the project.
The soil was so non-cohesive it was like quicksand. During the excavation, the crew dug through two water tables. Even with two pumps running constantly, they often slogged through 6 to 8 inches of water on the excavation bottom.
ISG was also concerned about spoil piles being placed too close to the edge, Brandel says. But they had limited say over the work, according to Brandel.
"We have to be careful not to tell them, ‘Hey, you need to construct your trench this way.’ Because that’s their job, not our job," he says. Telling a contractor how to dig a trench could have made the engineering firm liable if something went wrong, he says.
Minnesota OSHA said the spoil piles were on the edge of the excavation, leaving no distinction between them and the excavation walls.
Having the spoil pile too close isn’t only a worry because dirt can fall in, but also because the weight can put additional pressure on the walls, which can cause them to cave in, explains James Krueger, director of Workplace Safety Programs for Minnesota OSHA.
"That’s why you have to have it 2 feet back," he says, "or you have to have some type of structure to keep those employees safe."
Safranski did not use a protective system designed by a professional engineer, as OSHA standards require in an excavation that deep, Krueger notes.
Vortex did have some protection with trench boxes, but it was inadequate and improperly used, OSHA determined. For about a week, Vortex used a 10-foot-tall trench box with an 8-foot-tall trench box stacked on top. But as the weight of the soil increased on the boxes, it became more difficult to move them as the digging progressed. Rather than dismantle the boxes and stack them again, the top trench box was removed and set aside, Rady said.
They removed about a bucket-width of dirt from alongside the remaining 20-foot-long trench box, filled that area with rock about halfway up to the pipe, and then compacted the rock. They did that, Rady says, because they could move the trench box through the rock easier than through dirt.
The ground in the area also might have been disturbed 35 years ago when the original drainage pipe was installed. The engineering plan shows that the new 48-inch drain tile would intersect at points with the 36-inch tile installed in 1981. Rady says that knowledge could have made a difference in how they handled the excavation because of the greater potential for unstable soil and cave-in due to the previously disturbed dirt.
"There was another trench there and they very well could have intersected it, and that could have been softer soil or it could have been less compacted soil," Brandel confirms. "Yeah, they should have been aware of that. That potential was there because there were instances on our plans where we did cross the original trenches."
Brandel says that information was in the plan given to the contractor. But Rady says Safranski never passed that on to him.
Safranski could not be reached for comment for this story.
"All I could see was his knee"
On Friday, June 10, 2016, Safranski and crew dug out the latest phase of the excavation. It began to rain, so they knocked off at 3 p.m.
It rained hard all weekend, so they didn’t return to the jobsite until 1 p.m. the following Monday. Six inches of rain had collected in the excavation bottom. Though water in an excavation can undermine its sides, Safranski did not take adequate precautions to protect his workers, OSHA said.
He also did not provide a ladder or any other safe means of entering and exiting the excavation, according to the agency. Rady said it was easier to scramble up the dirt incline than to keep moving a ladder and setting it up in water.
Operating an excavator that day, Safranski hoisted a 20-foot section of new pipe into the excavation. He realized the pipe was pierced, then entered the excavation to help Erickson and Rady remove the damaged section and re-secure the remaining section to a second pipe that was already placed on grade at the bottom of the excavation.
They cut out the damaged 2-foot section of drain tile using a Sawzall and installed a coupler underneath to connect the two good pipes. Erickson and Rady began shoveling rock to even the grade. It was tough going, so they took turns shoveling. Safranski moved to higher ground.
It was then they noticed the west side of the excavation "oozing slowly like a liquid," the OSHA report says.
Dirt began falling in and around the south end of the trench box. Rady had made it to the damaged pipe section to seek safety. He’s not sure, but Rady thinks Erickson may have shoved him into the pipe a moment before the avalanche.
"When I went to lean forward and jump in, my hand slipped from him, and that’s when everything hit, and I could hear what sounded like an earthquake," Rady says.
He saw Erickson standing motionless until he was hit by the falling soil and disappeared under the water and dirt.
"When it hit the side of the trench box, it sounded like thunder," Rady says. "And then when the dirt started falling on me, my head was underwater and you could still hear dirt falling. You’d feel sand and water in your ears and your nose. I just thought that was the last thing that I was ever going to hear."
Rady thought he’d never see his 5-year-old son again. He prayed. When the collapse subsided, he crawled out of the pipe.
"I looked for Dave – all I could see was his knee," he recalls.
Rady fled from the trench box until the avalanche had completely stopped.
Then, desperate to save his friend, he rushed back and clawed at the soil, ripping off his fingernails as he dug. Safranski scrabbled through the dirt and water to help, but they couldn’t move a heavy chunk of dirt that had fallen on Erickson. Other workers rushed to help.
Muddy water began to rise, submerging Erickson.
Madelia ambulance and volunteer firefighters were among the first rescuers to arrive. They initially could see Erickson’s foot, they told Blue Earth County sheriff’s Lt. Jeremy Brennan. But as soil continued to fall around the trench box and water entered, even that small sign of Erickson disappeared.
"The trench box had approximately 3 to 4 feet of water, along with soil that had fallen off of the sides and filled in around the south side of the trench box," Brennan wrote in his report.
Conditions were too hazardous for rescue workers to enter the excavation.
Brennan called Rady out of the excavation for safety reasons.
"I was still down there with a damn shovel and mini excavator trying to dig and dig," Rady says.
"They pulled me out of that equipment because I didn’t want to quit. I just wanted him out… and it took a sheriff’s deputy and somebody else to pretty much pull me out of the excavator."
The operation was put on hold until the Mankato Fire Confined Space Rescue Team arrived from 23 miles away. Trained in trench rescues, team members knew they first had to stabilize the excavation. Authorities arranged for five construction companies and the city of Mankato to bring in excavators and other heavy equipment and operators to make conditions safer. They used a trash pump to try to stay ahead of the water that continued to flow in.
By 8 p.m., the Mankato team could enter the trench box. They soon located Erickson’s body under 3 feet of water, partially covered by soil.
The responders freed Erickson’s body at 8:15 p.m., more than five hours after the collapse.
As he sat outside the hotel, Rady saw the ambulance bearing Erickson’s body as it headed to a mortuary.
"When they came over the overpass, I was sitting outside the motel because nobody really wanted me there when they pulled him out," recalls Rady, who had been highly emotional at the scene. "I wanted to remember him in a better way."
Months after promising to keep their son safe, Rady had to call Erickson’s parents to tell them about the tragedy.
The next day, as Rady drove Erickson’s truck and belongings back to Ironwood to deliver them to his parents, the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office performed an autopsy.
Medical examiners determined that Erickson died of asphyxia due to chest compression and that the water that submerged him did not play a role in his death.
It was a death that could have been prevented, experts say.
The fatality was primarily due to a contractor’s lack of foresight and no protective system designed by an engineer for an excavation deeper than 20 feet, says Krueger, with Minnesota OSHA.
"It’s all about the preplanning and thinking what you’re going to do before you begin that work," Krueger says. "And that’s really how you want to prevent these types of accidents and injuries from occurring."
After its investigation of the collapse, Minnesota OSHA cited Safranski, owner of Vortex Drain Tiling, with eight serious violations and fined him $104,375.
Six months after the cave-in, Safranski declared bankruptcy and liquidated his company. The fines have not been paid.
"A hole in my heart"
Services for Erickson were held June 28, 2016, at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Ironwood. Rady was a pallbearer, along with Army sergeants who had served with Erickson. There were full military honors at Riverside Cemetery.
"The loss is so great," says Erickson’s mother, Mary Ann, her voice breaking.
"There’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled. It devastates the family."
Both Rady and Erickson’s family think often of how Erickson survived battles in the deserts of Afghanistan, only to die in a muddy field in Minnesota.
"You worry about him over there twice," says Mary Ann Erickson of her son’s two combat tours, "and then he comes home, and you think you don’t have to worry anymore. And then this happens.
"I keep thinking about what he must have gone through that day."
She wants her son’s story to be told.
"Maybe it will help contractors think about the safety involved for these workers and maybe they’ll figure out a way of protecting them a little more than this one did," she says. "I don’t want another parent to go through what we’re going through."
Following the collapse, Rady has undergone therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder through a workers’ compensation program. He grapples with nightmares and other after-effects.
"I’m deathly afraid of heights or anything to do with an edge or having to look down into a trench," he says. "I have panic attacks."
Rady cherishes the Fossil watch Erickson gave him before heading to basic training. It’s so scratched that Rady can barely see the hands.
"I still have it, I’m wearing it right now," he says. "I’ve put maybe 10 batteries in it and had a bunch of work done on it, but I would never get rid of that watch."
For him, the watch isn’t just for telling time. It’s a reminder of his friend and happier times.