Families of men killed in South End trench are reeling
They had no chance.
Kelvin Mattocks, a big-hearted father of four, and Robert Higgins, a good-natured welder who believed his life was finally looking up, struggled as the water rose around them. But the pipe that burst in the trench they were digging on Dartmouth Street in the South End Friday gushed with such ferocity that the 12-foot dirt walls had begun to cave in.
“I heard them screaming, ‘Help! Help! Help! Help!’” said Steven Smith Jr., a construction worker who happened to be passing during his lunch break. Smith ran to the edge of the trench and saw the water rising above their heads.
“It rose so quick, it was almost like it never happened. Like they were never there,” said Smith on Saturday. “They just disappeared under the water.”
Both Mattocks, 53, and Higgins, 47, who were working for Atlantic Drain Service Co., were killed. The tragedy laid bare the perils faced by construction workers, who walk a delicate line to stay safe on scaffolding and in trenches, their work a seldom noted but essential part of the backdrop of busy city life.
Firefighters spent hours Friday night on their hands and knees, digging the men’s bodies out of the dirt. One of them was recovered in a standing position, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity — suggesting that his boots and legs may have been encased almost instantly by the gravel and dirt that cascaded down the sides of the trench.
While it is not yet clear why the water line ruptured, Atlantic Drain has been designated a “severe” violator by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which placed the company in a program for “recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat, or failure-to-abate violations,” said Ted Fitzgerald, an agency spokesman.
“I can’t believe this — that this Atlantic Drain Co. was allowed to work in the city anywhere,” said Martin T. Hewitt, Higgins’s uncle. “I’m not going to let this go.”
Higgins had only recently begun working for Atlantic Drain, his family said. It was his first steady job in years, and he was proud to be working and saving money. Mattocks had been working for Atlantic Drain on and off for 18 years — it was one of three jobs he held down to support the family he adored. He had just adopted three of his young grandchildren.
“My heart is broken,” said his sister, Melinda Mattocks-Ushry.
Higgins and Mattocks were working with at least two other people in the deepest part of the trench, which spanned about 20 feet, when the pipe burst Friday around 1 p.m., officials have said. The other workers scrambled to safety, but Higgins and Mattocks got stuck.
“Get out! Get out!” workers began screaming, said Mirtha Colon, 70, who lives nearby.
But in seconds, torrents of brown water were coursing down the street, witnesses said. Smith, who had run to the edge of the trench, watched the water swallow Higgins and Mattocks. He stripped off the construction harness he was wearing and plunged it in, hoping one of the men would grab it. He could see them faintly under the churn. But the harness stayed limp in his hands.
So Smith said he tied an extension cord around his waist, secured it to a nearby stoop, and lowered a ladder into the hole. But the violent current kept pushing him up. He felt around with his feet. Nothing.
Colon said she watched and wept, crying out from her porch, “Cut the water off!” Other workers told Smith that Higgins and Mattocks were pinned by dirt and debris that gave way, he said. Smith could feel the gravel whirring in the water, piling on top of them.
Desperate, Smith began screaming for chains to move the metal plates off the narrower portion of the trench, which he hoped against hope the men might have managed to reach.
But underneath them, there was only more water.
On Saturday, both men’s families said they were shattered.
Higgins had spent the past year talking excitedly about the upswing in his life.
“He was just so proud,” said his aunt, Marilyn Hewitt. “He thought: This was it. He was finally going to be successful.”
A Warren, R.I., native, Higgins had excelled in high school as a football running back, and after graduation, settled into a steady job as a machine operator at a chemical plant. But after about 10 or 12 years, said his uncle, Martin T. Hewitt, the plant downsized and Higgins was let go. For years, he worked odd jobs, his family said. He moved back in with his mother and stepfather a few years ago.
But then he went to school to learn how to weld, and he got hired by Atlantic Drain. He was out the door every morning at 4:30 a.m. and never missed a day.
His stepfather, Jerry Biancuzzo, said Higgins was a kindhearted and responsible person who always made sure their elderly neighbors were safe during storms. Every winter, he was out shoveling walks, Biancuzzo said; he brought people food and made sure they could get out of their homes if they needed to. Higgins, who went by Robbie, loved the Patriots and animals — especially his cat, Rapunzel.
“He was always there for everybody, even when he had nothing,” Biancuzzo said, his voice ragged with grief. “He was just a big-hearted kid. He had his hard knocks. But he told me he was really going to make it now.”
Mattocks went by “Chuck,” and had a reputation for generosity. At one of his other jobs, handling maintenance at Save-A-Lot stores, Roxbury night manager Khaya Cosby said Mattocks would often hire neighborhood homeless people to do things like fix shopping carts — tasks he didn’t actually need any help with — and then pay them out of his own pocket.
“He would do anything for anybody,” Cosby said. “He is that guy.”
Mattocks came from a big family in North Carolina, said his sister, Mattocks-Ushry, but he was her baby — he followed her north to Brockton when she moved and built his house 10 doors down from her own. But he stayed devoted, she said, to his family down South: Just two weeks ago, he traveled home to take his mother to lunch.
“I said, ‘That’s an expensive lunch, brother,’ ” she recalled, laughing. “That’s the type of man he was. He cleaned her yard and put everything up for the winter so she wouldn’t have to do that.”
He loved taking his family on vacations, she said. They went two or three times a year, and his invite list was always expansive — he’d take his grandchildren along and sometimes hers. They went to Disney World, Myrtle Beach, and Six Flags, on spring, winter, and summer vacations, she said.
Mattocks called her on Thursday, a day before he died , she said. He just wanted to tell her he loved her.
“I had no idea he was saying goodbye to me,” she said.
Mattocks’s daughter’s boyfriend, who also works for Atlantic Drain, was on Dartmouth Street Friday when the accident occurred, Mattocks-Ushry said. The family is devastated, she said.
The Boston Police and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office are investigating the men’s deaths, which officials have said appear to be accidental. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting an occupational hazard review. On Saturday, there were no updates on the investigation or review.
Atlantic Drain was doing a private job Friday; it was not working for the city. The company’s office in Roslindale was locked Saturday morning.
A woman who answered the phone at a listing for the owner, Kevin Otto, declined to comment. “Can you please leave him alone?” she asked.
On Saturday, Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said she was outraged that Atlantic Drain was still operating with so many violations. The company also owes tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines.
“To fail repeatedly and to have had fines, and to have failed to pay the fines, and then to be here in 2016 with two families who have tragically lost loved ones?” she said. “It’s just unconscionable.”