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Storm sweeps away construction worker in Chicago

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 11:51 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO – Federal investigators on Thursday were trying to determine the chain of events that led to the death of a construction worker who was swept away by rising water in a Chicago sewer where he was working during a thunderstorm the night before.

Scott Allen of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said investigators were interviewing other employees, examining the site and looking for potential witnesses. Among the questions they hope to answer is whether the man should have been inside the sewer minutes after a flash flood warning had been issued for the region. They are also investigating whether the worker was ordered out of the sewer and whether he stayed after he was told to leave.

“Our job is to determine if any OSHA violations were committed ... and if they followed all OSHA standards,” Allen said.

The worker, Gustavo Briceno Jr., 25, of Glendale Heights, Ill., was a private contractor who was working on the city’s Northwest Side as part of a project to line aging sewers with a protective material.

At about 8:30 p.m., he disappeared when water from a powerful thunderstorm that was pelting the region poured in.

“He was working in an almost-dry sewer, and the storm surge came in and just came up too fast on him,” said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford. “When the rain hit, the sewer system went to capacity, filled up to the top real quick and he had no place to go.”

Langford said the water “dragged him from one end (of the sewer) to the other.” Briceno’s body was found at about 10:30 p.m. in the sewer about a block from where he was last seen, Langford said. He added that Briceno was wearing a wet suit but, possibly because he was working in a sewer that was “almost dry,” he was not wearing an air tank.

Langford said the body showed no signs of trauma, and the cause of death was pending.

The storm was powerful, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning at about 8:15 p.m. By the time it moved out of the region, it had dropped as much as five inches of rain in some areas, according to Stephen Rodriguez, a weather service meteorologist.

Briceno was an employee of Kenny Construction. In a statement, the company said that the “cause of the incident is not known at this time” and that the company is cooperating with authorities in the investigation.

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