The State Worker

While mourning a murdered co-worker, Caltrans honors its fallen employees

Caltrans Workers Memorial 2017

Roberto Lopez remembers his father Jorge Lopez during the Caltrans Workers Memorial 2017 on the West Steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Lopez was one of four workers honored that died in the last year.
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Roberto Lopez remembers his father Jorge Lopez during the Caltrans Workers Memorial 2017 on the West Steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Lopez was one of four workers honored that died in the last year.

After spending her first holiday season without her dad, Daniela Lopez wanted a hug from the one person she couldn’t touch.

In her grief she turned to a trove of letters she received after her father, a Caltrans electrician, died when a big rig slammed into him on a desert highway.

She felt, as she read loving tributes from his co-workers, that her family had grown after Jorge Lopez’s death.

“My family was a family of five,” she said at a Caltrans memorial on Thursday where thousands of highway workers gathered. “Now I have this sea of orange and every time we see you we think of daddy.”

Her father was one of three Caltrans employees who were killed on the job over the past year. The department honored them on the Capitol’s west steps in an annual ceremony that recognizes the sacrifices of the 187 state road employees who’ve died on the job since 1921.

This time, the ceremony closely followed a workplace homicide. Caltrans painter Terry Allen Hayse on Monday morning shot and killed his supervisor, Annette Brooks, before committing suicide at a Caltrans maintenance facility in southern Humboldt County, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Brooks, 61, was honored during the ceremony; Hayse, 57, was not.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty called the shooting “shocking” and said the department would review the incident to see what it could have done to prevent the killing. The CHP investigation is not complete, but its initial findings suggested the shooting followed a workplace argument, said Officer Cy May.

“It’s not something anyone expects,” Dougherty said. He’s met some of their cow-orkers, who he described as in “deep mourning” over the loss of two longtime colleagues.

Friends and relatives of Lopez, 57, and Brooks were joined at the ceremony by relatives of electrician Randy Whisenhunt, 58, who died in October as a result of injuries he suffered at work. Their survivors dropped flowers in orange cones, each decorated with black bands inscribed with the names of fallen Caltrans workers.

Daniela Lopez said her dad was proud to work for Caltrans. He’d show her his highway projects, and convey to her the work was more to him than a means to a paycheck.

“He wanted to work for the state that gave him so much,” she said.

Three of Brooks’ friends brought an oversize portrait of her. They described her as a “lively” friend who stayed in touch with them when her work took her from their station in Oakland to a posting in Rio Dell.

“I’m still in shock,” said Donna Gregory, a Caltrans safety officer who had known Brooks for 30 years.

They talked to each other almost every day. Brooks would call sometimes late at night, and they’d watch satellites cross the sky as they stood hundreds of miles apart.

“We gave each other strength” as they moved up in their careers as women in a mostly male department, Gregory said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.

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