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Kingdome Report Faults Safety Rules -- Worker Deaths Were 'Accident Waiting To Happen'

Just before 8 p.m. last Aug. 17, sandblasters William Louth and Jorge Turincio traveled, via crane, 220 feet to the Kingdome ceiling.

The men had just reported to work - the fifth straight day of a 12-hour, late-night shift - and were still dressing into their construction gear as the crane's jib, an 88-foot ladderlike arm, lifted them upward in a basket at 1 foot per second.

Noise, dim lighting and thick clouds of dust hampered the crane operator's ability to see where the jib was going. Although Louth and Turincio had a radio, it was turned off.

So when the basket hit the Kingdome ceiling, the jib kept moving. The tip bent against the concrete and finally broke off.

One man was flung out. The other fell as the basket, still attached to a piece of the jib, plunged to the ground in 4 1/2 seconds, smashing into the crane's cab on its way down.

It wasn't just the basket hitting the Kingdome ceiling that caused the deaths of Louth and Turincio and head injuries to crane operator Charles Cox.

Rather, said state investigators who have fined three contractors $39,000, it was the overall lack of a safety system that could have prevented the accident from occurring.

"All of us know the crane hit the ceiling," Mark Brown, state Department of Labor and Industries director, said yesterday as the agency released the results of a five-month investigation. "But that's not the whole story. We want to know why."

The bottom-line conclusion of the investigation is simple: The fatal accident was caused by a series of human errors - errors that a strong chain of command, better training, teamwork and more organization among subcontractors on the job could have prevented.

The accident occurred one month after four ceiling tiles, weakened by years of accumulated moisture, crashed into stadium seats, forcing King County to embark on what has become a $51 million repair project.

Like most workers on the job, Louth and Turincio had been working long hours to get the stadium reopened as quickly as possible.

Investigators, while acknowledging that fatigue was apparent among many Kingdome workers, said long hours and high-stress conditions were not unusual on construction sites and did not directly contribute to the accident.

"A lot of construction activities are time-sensitive," said Brown. "If there's an accident-prevention program in place and compliance to it, we contend you can work people long hours to get the job done in time."

Such programs were missing in the Kingdome before the accident occurred, investigators said, creating potential for "an accident waiting to happen."

Some of the investigation's findings include the following:

-- Although cranes had hit the Kingdome ceiling before the accident occurred, nothing had been done to fix the problem.

-- Workers knew poor lighting, dust and the shape of the Dome itself made it hard for crane operators to judge whether they were positioning jibs and platform baskets correctly. Yet, radio-communication systems that could have been used to guide crane operators were filled with chatter and other interference.

-- The fast-paced nature of the Kingdome project had brought in scores of workers from throughout the country. They reported to different subcontractors on the job, and little, if any, sense of teamwork had developed.

-- The general state of the Kingdome - dusty, noisy and badly lighted - created conditions that made work especially hazardous.

In the end, no one person was responsible for the accident, the report concludes. "A general lack of prudent organizational and safety measures, coupled with the urgency to get the job completed . . . is perhaps a major ingredient which contributed to the tragedy."

The investigation has resulted in fines of $12,290 against Long Painting Co. Inc., the subcontractor that employed Louth and Turincio; $16,300 against Ness Crane Services Inc., which owned the crane involved in the accident; and $10,450 against Pacific Components Inc., then the general contractor on the Kingdome project.

The agency continues to investigate the accident, as well as a nonfatal September incident, and other fines may result.

None of these fines is particularly large, and all of the companies cited have better-than-average safety records. Brown, noting that 95 percent of the companies fined by the agency file appeals, expects these companies to challenge the agency's findings in the next two weeks.

He said he wants the real message to be a renewed awareness of safety.

Brown plans to introduce legislation this year that would require crane operators to be licensed.

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