Two workers were killed Wednesday at a construction site in downtown Boston after they were hit by a truck and knocked into a hole in the road, a grisly accident that horrified onlookers and left grief-stricken relatives crying out for answers.
Jared Petruzzella, who owns a barbershop near the site of the accident on High Street, was waiting for his first appointment of the day to arrive when he heard the truck start, rev its engine, and grind into gear. He then watched in disbelief as it jolted backward and struck the men, who were sitting over the construction hole.
“It was pretty gruesome, pretty tragic,” he said. “It didn’t look like anything collapsed on them inside. . . . It was a panic. It wasn’t a good scene.”
One of the men who was killed, according to his sister, worked for Boston-based Atlantic Coast Utilities, which was repairing a private sewer not far from the Greenway when the crash occurred. At the scene, Leslie Villalobos, 23, said that her brother, Jordan Romero, had fallen about 20 feet into the mattress-sized hole. Accompanied by friends and family, Villalobos stood by as authorities worked to retrieve his body.
“I guess you could say I’m in shock,” she said.
Romero was 28 and was newly married, she said. He was fun and full of life, a hard worker and good father, she said.
“He found his job [to be] like an escape from reality,” Villalobos said. “And he just wanted to work really hard for his kids.
Authorities did not identify the other victim and did not say how the fatal collision happened. Local police and prosecutors and federal safety regulators are investigating.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Atlantic Coast Utilities will not be allowed to work in the city until the investigation is complete. Work the contractor was doing at a separate site was suspended.
“It’s just really a sad, sad incident,” Walsh said at the scene.
In a statement, Walsh said the “safety of our workers is of paramount importance to me.”
“I’m heartbroken that two hardworking people lost their lives so suddenly and tragically this morning, and we will work tirelessly to understand how this happened in order to create safer conditions in the future,” said Walsh, who is on the verge of being confirmed by the Senate as the next US labor secretary.
At a news conference, officials said that first responders were called to High Street around 8 a.m. for a report of pedestrians who had been hit by a truck. They arrived to find two bodies in the construction hole. The men were pronounced dead at the scene.
At midmorning, yellow police tape blocked sidewalks, keeping onlookers at a distance. Dozens of firefighters and EMTs were on the scene as clusters of construction workers looked on. The families of both victims consoled each other and cried.
What happened remained unclear, authorities said.
“Obviously, it’s a very active investigation,” said Greg Long, the city’s acting police commissioner. “We’re still interviewing witnesses and reviewing video. We’re just not at a place right now” to provide “a blow by blow [account] of what happened here today.”
The workplace deaths were reminiscent of a 2016 accident in the city, when a trench collapsed at a South End job site, killing two workers. In the South End case, a drain company owner was sentenced to two years behind bars for failing to take safety precautions.
Atlantic Coast Utilities had been doing an emergency sewer repair for LDJ Development, which lists its address at 190 High St. An Atlantic Coast Utilities employee who answered the phone Wednesday said the owner wasn’t immediately available for comment.
According to OSHA, Atlantic Coast Utilities has been cited multiple times in recent years for violating workplace safety standards. In 2016, the federal agency proposed $34,920 in fines for one “willful” and two “serious” violations. A spokesman for the federal agency said the company did not pay the penalties and the case was referred to the Treasury Department for debt collection.
At that time, OSHA found the company in violation of certain excavation safety rules and safety equipment rules. Details of that investigation were not immediately available.
In 2019, OSHA wanted to fine the company $7,502 for allegedly failing to provide safety instructions to workers and for allegedly violating safety rules, according to OSHA records. Atlantic Coast Utilities contested the citations, according to OSHA.
A 2020 inspection found no violations and no citations against Atlantic Coast Utilities, according to OSHA.
According to US Department of Transportation data, 15 vehicles operated by Atlantic Coast Utilities have undergone highway safety inspections — and failed nearly 27 percent of the time. The national average for vehicle inspections of similar companies is 21 percent, the agency reported.
The agency said drivers for the company underwent regular checks 17 times. Twice drivers were ordered off the road because of licensing issues.
MassCOSH, a local work safety advocacy group, said in a statement that the firm’s OSHA record “raises serious questions regarding Boston’s Inspectional Services Department permitting process.” The group did note that it was unclear if the city “did not conduct due diligence in awarding the permit or if Atlantic Coast Utilities failed to submit, or submitted incorrect information during the permitting process.”
”One way to ensure that workers are safe is to prevent companies that have failed to protect their employees from receiving public contracts and/or permits,” said MassCOSH.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said investigators don’t know “if this is a crime. We know that it’s a tragedy. . . . We are going to be in constant contact with our federal and local and state partners to get to the bottom of this for these families.”
City Councilor Ed Flynn said the deaths were heartbreaking and said the city will “find out exactly what happened and why.”
”It was a horrible, horrible accident,” he said.
Travis Andersen and Dugan Arnett of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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