When a trench partially collapsed on a coworker at the Skookumchuck Wind Project outside of Rainier on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 9, 24-year-old Chehalis man Jonathan Stringer didn’t hesitate.
He jumped in the hole with another worker and began attempting to save his buried colleague by digging out dirt and rocks with his bare hands.
That’s when another collapse completely buried Stringer, prompting a harrowing ordeal during which about 25 other workers tried in frantic shifts to save him, but ultimately failed to reach him in time.
The scene is detailed in an incident report from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office obtained by The Chronicle and Nisqually Valley News through a public information request. The documents also show that there was no shoring on the trench to prevent the collapses prior to Stringer’s death and describe a remote work site with poor cellphone coverage that was difficult for emergency responders to reach.
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, which assumed jurisdiction of the case after the initial response by Thurston County deputies, declined to release additional documents noting that Stringer’s death is still under active investigation.
Three companies — including RES America, the developer of the sprawling Skookumchuck Wind Project that was scheduled to come online in the first quarter of this year — are under investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries.
Stringer’s family described him as a loving man who enjoyed baseball, fishing and helping others, and his “greatest happiness was his daughter Remington and fiance, Ashlee Thompson.”
The incident report from Thurston County Deputy Charles Ault sheds new light on the workplace death. Ault was in the Rochester area at about 11 a.m. Jan. 9 when he was dispatched to the remote job site about 15 miles past the gate on the Skookumchuck Wind Farm located at 16340 Vail Loop Road SE near Rainier. He arrived at the gate about 15 minutes later. An ambulance and fire engine were already at the gate. An employee had to direct the emergency responders through several different logging roads to get to the site where Stringer was buried.
A lack of cellphone service in the area led the deputy to use his police radio to provide road numbers to dispatchers as he rushed to the scene, which was 6 to 8 miles across the Lewis County line.
The responders arrived at 11:53 a.m. and found about 25 employees and a pair of ambulances from a private contractor that already had a presence at the site. The deputy was notified of one death and one worker with critical injuries. He immediately began to document the scene, noting the trench was about 50 feet long going north to south with depths ranging from 1 to 12 feet and a width of 18 to 36 inches. There were several small water drainages gathering on the east side of the logging road and flowing into a 12-inch black, plastic culvert that ran through the trench east to west. It was snowing and there was already 2 to 4 inches of snow on the ground, according to the report.
At the south end of the trench, the deputy noted there was an excavator sitting with its tracks across the divide.
The deputy observed a black pipe an employee described as a “sleeve” used to run cable through.
“I observed no shoring equipment in the trench,” Ault wrote, noting the lack of temporary support that might have prevented a collapse.
The site foreman for RES America reported that Stringer and other workers had been assigned the task of digging the trench in the road to get the sleeve under the culvert because the cable could not be installed over the top of the culvert.
The deputy assisted in placing chains on the rear tires of the ambulance carrying the critically injured worker, who was not identified in the redacted incident report. Ault contacted the safety manager of RES American and learned the identities of the dead and injured workers.
Speaking with workers at the scene, the deputy pieced together a narrative of how the collapse occurred and the immediate efforts by those at the site to save their coworkers.
Many workers were “too upset and crying” to talk, Ault wrote, adding that chaplain services were made available.
Through interviews, it was learned that Stringer was working on a three-man team working on getting the sleeve under the culvert. Another worker had used heavy equipment to make the trench, meaning they normally only had to manually dig a trench 3 to 4 feet deep. Due to the location and angle of the culvert, though, the trench had to be about 15 feet, according to the incident report.
A worker said he and Stringer were discussing the best way to get the sleeve slid into place under the culvert when the worker “took it upon himself and climbed down in the trench and attached a strap around one end of the sleeve and was on his hands and knees trying to feed the strap under the culvert.”
Their plan was to use the bucket on the track-hoe to pull the sleeve into position.
“As (the worker was) almost done feeding the strap under the culvert, a piece of the east side of the trench caved in on (the worker) completely covering him with about 12 to 18 inches of dirt and rock,” according to the incident report.
Stringer climbed into the trench along with another worker to get the man free, using their bare hands, when a large section of the east side of the trench gave way, completely burying Stringer and covering the second worker up to his knees. The second worker dug himself out and used a portable radio to call for help before jumping back into the trench and digging frantically to reach the two other men.
Other coworkers began streaming into the scene with shovels. By the end of the effort, there were about 25 employees helping, all of them taking turns due to the tight space and fatigue.
The critically injured worker was located with his head under the culvert, and he was extracted safely as they continued trying to reach Stringer.
A worker said about 30 minutes had passed before he stopped hearing Stringer, and they kept digging until they located his left arm, torso and neck. There was no pulse.
The injured worker suffered a broken shoulder, a punctured lung and possible pelvic fracture and internal bleeding. He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center after being transported off the hill. .
Representatives from RES-Americas said last week they could not share any details or updates on the incident or the worker who was also injured during the incident. The incident is also being investigated internally.
A statement was attributed to the company in a story published at rechargenews.com.
“We have commenced a thorough investigation to understand what happened and its cause,” an RES spokesperson said, according to the web site. “We are deeply saddened by the death of the construction worker and extend our condolences to his family and we hope for a speedy recovery of our injured colleague.”
The website also attributed a statement to a spokesperson for Southern Power, which has a majority ownership stake in the project: “Our deepest sympathies go out to everyone and their families who have been impacted by the devastating event.”
The Skookumchuck Wind Farm is a 38-turbine project currently being constructed by RES-Americas and owned by Southern Power. The project was slated to begin producing power for Puget Sound Energy in the first quarter of 2020.
According to a death notice provided to The Chronicle, a celebration of life will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25, at Funeral Alternatives of Washington in Tumwater.
So far, an online fundraising campaign has raised more than $18,000 of its $20,000 goal to go toward Stringer’s girlfriend and young child. More than 159 donations have been made. Funds go directly to the Stringer family. The page can be found at https://bit.ly/2uapByR.
Additional details can be found within the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office incident report below: