A sewer worker who suffocated as he tried to clear a blocked underground pipe went against his training by failing to test the dank air before scampering down a manhole, a village official said Thursday.
And the firefighter who died trying to rescue the worker also apparently decided not to wait for an air monitor, though one was on its way, Tarrytown Village Administrator Michael Blau said.
"Obviously, there's a lot of questions out there that I don't think anyone is ever going to be able to answer," Blau said at a news conference in Village Hall, 20 miles north of New York City.
Blau spoke as mourners gathered for the wakes and funerals of Anthony Ruggiero, 47, of the Tarrytown public works department, and volunteer firefighter John Kelly, 51. A poisonous sewer gas is suspected as the cause of their deaths.
Ruggiero and Kelly, who were friends, died 20 feet down a manhole as they searched on Monday for a blockage in the village sewer system. They had lifted several manhole covers along the street, and when they popped one behind a firehouse, Ruggiero said he thought he saw some paper that might be part of a blockage, Blau said.
Even though the Department of Public Works has no written policy, the sewer worker's training included being taught not to enter any confined space without testing the air, and a DPW foreman had already decided to use a truck that could blast water at the blockage, Blau said.
Such methods "have been effective in eliminating the need for staff to enter the sewers," Blau said, but Ruggiero "made the decision to go down with a shovel."
Shortly afterward, Kelly and the foreman "looked over and saw Mr. Ruggiero at the bottom of the manhole," Blau said.
The foreman, Scott Weaver, called for fire and ambulance workers and said he would go into the manhole with a rope and an air monitor. Although the Department of Public Works didn't have monitors at the scene, there was one on a truck at the firehouse, just a few hundred feet away.
But before the air monitor reached the scene, Kelly went into the manhole unprotected, Blau said. Kelly was "essentially in the hole" by the time others realized he was attempting a rescue, he said.
"I can't tell you what was going through Mr. Kelly's head at the time, but he ultimately made a determination that he needed to go down there and do something," he said.
Kelly was quickly overcome and fell at the bottom of the manhole. The foreman then tested the air and found a dangerously low level of oxygen — 14 percent, only about two-thirds the safe level. Emergency workers then arrived, put on breathing masks and brought the two men up from the manhole.
The men were pronounced dead at Westchester Medical Center.
Afterward, tests of the air in and around the manhole found hydrogen sulfide, best known as sewer gas, at levels of 18 to 22 parts per million. Those levels aren't dangerous, but Blau said the concentration was likely much higher when the two men went in. Hydrogen sulfide can push out oxygen and can kill with just a few breaths at concentrations of 500 parts per million.
Blau said the village is trying to recreate the conditions to assist the medical examiner's office in determining the cause of the men's deaths. The men had no broken bones or serious bruises, meaning it's unlikely they were injured or killed by falling in the manhole, he said.
The village has banned any worker from entering a manhole, deciding to contract for any necessary work while its training program is reassessed, Blau said.
He said he has not heard of any lawsuits against the village but expects citations from the state Department of Labor.