The death of a construction worker in Middletown on Monday was reportedly caused by a freak sinkhole, and not a pit collapse as first reported.
A contractor's employee was killed Monday when a fell into a sinkhole while working on a sewer line extension near the Westown Movies Theater.
The worker was identified as Jerry Hurley, an employee of Newark-based Austin & Bednash Construction. His age and town of residence were not released.
"This is not a negligence thing at all," said Fire Chief Frank Bailey of Volunteer Hose Company of Middletown, which led a six-hour effort to recover Hurley's body on Monday. "The ground was just so saturated it created a sinkhole and, unfortunately, he fell in. I can honestly say, I've never been to a call like this before."
Hurley was a member of a crew working on a sewer tie-in project that would have extended town sewer service to the area near the corner of Del. Route 301 and Merrimac Avenue known as Westown, which is slated to include the 12-screen Westown Movies theater, a church and other businesses.
On Monday, that crew was supposed to work in a 14-foot-deep pit that had been dug previously and was reinforced with steel walls.
However, the project was delayed when workers found a substantial amount of water at the bottom of the pit, Bailey said.
Hurley had been using an excavator to dig a hole at the bottom of the pit into which a pump was going to be placed to remove the water.
At some point, Hurley exited the excavator to inspect the hole from the ground level outside the pit, when the earth on which he was standing gave way, trapping him in the wet dirt up to his shoulders.
A town employee who was at the site to inspect the work witnessed the collapse and called 911 at 11:54 a.m., at which time Hurley was reportedly still conscious and able to speak.
Bailey said the man's head sank below the ground before the first responders arrived minutes later.
Firefighters used shovels in an attempt to reach the man, who was found dead about 3 feet underground, he said.
Because the ground outside the pit was too unstable for emergency responders to continue digging, it took several hours to clear away a large enough area to safely recover Hurley's body, which had sunk nearly 15 feet by the time it was removed at about 5:45 p.m.
"There was so much groundwater around there that it just couldn't hold the weight," Bailey said.
The large hole dug by emergency responders was filled in by town workers overnight. It is not known when the sewer project might resume.
A Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman said Tuesday that an investigation of the fatal sinkhole is underway. By law, investigators have six months to complete their inquiry, she said.
Hurley's death is the second major incident to occur in the area of Westown Movies in the last week.
A fire caused minor damage to the building front exterior on Wednesday after a welding spark ignited a layer of foam between the building's steel framework and exterior wall.
"We're very concerned about what happened today and our sympathies and condolences go out to this man's family," said Rick Roman, the general manager of Westown Movies. "But this incident did not occur on our property and was not related to our project."