Three years to the day when 53-year-old Kelvin Mattocks and 47-year-old Robert Higgins drowned when a trench they were working in at a South End construction site flooded, their relatives testified Monday as their employer’s manslaughter trial got underway.
“He was our everything. He was a great guy, good at heart, hard worker,” said Mattocks’s sister, Melinda Mattocks, on the stand in Suffolk Superior Court, just a few feet away from Kevin L. Otto, who’s being tried along with his company on manslaughter and other charges in the deaths of his two employees.
Jennifer Lewis, Higgins’s sister, also testified and said she and her brother grew up in Warren, R.I. Higgins, she said, worked at a factory and later at a roofing company before signing on with Otto’s company, Atlantic Drain Service.
“That’s my brother, Robert Higgins,” Lewis said when asked to identify the smiling man in a photo prosecutors placed on monitors in Courtroom 907, where Otto and Atlantic Drain have opted for a bench trial.
Before the victims’ siblings testified, Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Lynn Sara Feigenbaum said during opening statements that it was the defendants’ “wanton and reckless conduct” that led to Mattocks and Higgins being quickly overwhelmed by water that filled their 14-foot trench on Dartmouth Street on the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2016.
They had been at the job site with Otto that day performing underground work for a resident’s private home.
Otto, Feigenbaum said, knew he was supposed to install cave-in protections known as trench boxes at the site, but the necessary safeguards weren’t present when dirt caved in, burying his workers up to their waist.
Otto, who stood on the street above Higgins and Mattocks, shouted “get the hell out of the hole,” Feigenbaum said, but a hydrant collapsed, unleashing the torrent of water that killed the pair.
Feigenbaum said OSHA had informed Otto on two prior occasions at job sites in 2007 and 2012 that he needed to install cave-in protections in trenches deeper than five feet.
Nevertheless, Feigenbaum said, there were no protections in October 2016 in the Dartmouth Street trench, which “rapidly filled with water” before the victims “were gone.”
Vivianne Elise Jeruchim, a lawyer for Otto, said during her opening remarks that the defense concedes there were no trench supports in the hole on the day the victims died. She also offered condolences for “the deaths of these two fine men.”
However, she said, prosecutors can’t prove the lack of a trench box caused the hydrant to collapse. She said the city is responsible for installing hydrants, which are supposed to be equipped with devices called thrust-blocks to keep them stable. There’s no evidence such a safeguard was ever placed on that hydrant, Jeruchim said.
“This hydrant did not have it,” she said.
Jeruchim added that the lack of documentation for that particular hydrant by Boston Water and Sewer amounts to “a big black hole” regarding its “strength and the structure.”
She said prosecutors can’t prove that “but for the lack of” trench protection in the hole, the hydrant would have remained stable.
Otto’s trial resumes Tuesday. He wore a dark purple collared shirt Monday at the defense table and listened intently to opening statements and the initial testimony.
At times during opening statements, some victims’ relatives quietly fought back tears.