The first of the two workers was lifted out of the construction site just after 2:30 p.m. Friday, draped in the colors of the American flag as family, friends and workers huddled and consoled each other. One man collapsed into a woman’s arms for a long embrace, red-faced in his grief.
Twelve minutes later came the body of the second, also draped in red, white and blue, lowered by cables to the ground to be carried by family and fellow workers-turned-pallbearers to the waiting coroner’s van.
The two construction workers died Friday morning when the crane-hoisted basket that carried them broke free at a bridge construction site in Winters. The two-man basket plunged 80 feet onto timbers covering a 30-foot hole dug for footings for the new Winters Putah Creek Car Bridge, said Winters Fire Chief Aaron McAlister. He said fire responders were called at about 7 a.m Friday.
The two men have not yet been identified, but the 10-worker construction crew included the father of one of the men, said Richard Disney, president of Burlingame-based Disney Construction, which was building the bridge.
“They were working on building the foundation, doing the things we do every day. Nothing out of the ordinary,” Disney said.
Then something went wrong. Disney took a phone call, then a second, and finally, a third.
“They called me right away. No one knew the degree, but they said it looks bad,” Disney said. Then the caller from the work site said one of their men had died. Five minutes later, another call told him a second man was lost.
It had been another day performing the tough, dangerous work Disney’s men had done time and again. Construction crews had worked almost continuously on the $15 million project since it began in September 2013. The bridge project over Putah Creek on Railroad Avenue connects Yolo and Solano counties. The old span, there for many decades, had been removed and a temporary bridge put in its place.
On Friday, the temporary bridge and much of Railroad Avenue had become a staging area for the firefighters, Cal-OSHA investigators and the 12-member urban search and rescue team sent in to recover the bodies from the construction site several stories below Railroad Avenue.
While the recovery team worked below, the scene above was one of stunned shock and grief.
Workers in this tight-knit crew, covered in the dirt and grime of the work site, silently embraced as Winters police and Yolo County sheriff’s chaplains offered words of comfort. Family members, too, began to make their way to Railroad Avenue.
One, still in his hard hat and work boots from his own job, took a long pull from a water bottle, then told a Winters police officer at his side, “That’s my nephew,” before crossing the police line to meet with construction workers.
The tragedy was felt by Winters residents, too. Cole Ogando owns Preserve Public House on Railroad and Russell Street, about a block from the bridge site. His family also owns a construction outfit in town.
“It’s a dangerous job,” Ogando said from behind the bar. “You don’t (think about) the dangers, but your spouses do. I can’t imagine what those guys are going through.”
By the afternoon, more had gathered. A group of eight family members waited under the shade of an auto repair shop for the two workers’ bodies to be lifted from the work site.
McAlister said investigators from Cal-OSHA, Winters police, Yolo County Sheriff’s Office and Yolo County coroner’s officials “are all working in concert to determine what happened.” Later, McAlister said the on-scene investigation was expected to continue through the weekend, with no word on when construction would resume.
No incidents had been reported on the project before Friday, said Winters City Manager John Donlevy. But inspectors issued nine violations for two separate safety incidents at Disney Construction sites during the last decade.
The latest violations occurred in 2008 at a bridge construction site in the South Bay. State inspectors initially fined Disney $4,500 following four “serious” breaches of safety regulations, but later reduced the severity of the violations and cut the fine to $750.
A complaint during another South Bay construction job in 2006 resulted in five safety violations and a fine of $5,165 that was later reduced to $1,500, federal records show.
About 673,000 Californians work in the construction industry. More construction workers died on the job in California recently than workers in any other industry, according to the latest statistics from the state Department of Industrial Relations.
About 280 California workers died in construction accidents from 2008 to 2012, according to the latest statistics from the state Department of Industrial Relations. Falls were the leading cause of fatal injuries to construction workers.