By DAVID IVANOVICH
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
At least a dozen soldiers and Marines have been electrocuted in Iraq over the five years of the war, and investigators now are trying to learn what role improper grounding of electrical wires played in those deaths.
And Houston-based KBR — which builds bases and maintains housing for U.S. troops in Iraq — is at the center of the probe, with questions being raised about its responsibility to repair known wiring problems.
On the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, California Democrat Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter today to Defense Secretary Robert Gates seeking details about electrocutions of military and contract workers in Iraq and about KBR's role in making electrical repairs.
Defense Department spokesman Chris Isleib said the Pentagon "considers this matter to be serious, and we have referred it to the (Department of Defense) Inspector General for a full investigation."
KBR officials pledged to cooperate fully with agencies involved in the probe.
The investigation was prompted by the death of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, of Pennsylvania, who was electrocuted Jan. 2 while taking a shower in his living quarters in the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad.
Initially, Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris, was told her son — serving in the Army's special forces — had a small, electrical appliance with him in the shower.
"I tried to do this on my own and get answers," Harris said in a telephone interview. "I was not successful doing that."
Three weeks after the her son's death, Harris sought help from her local congressman, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.
Maseth, according to a memorandum written by Army investigators and obtained by the Chronicle, was living in a building that had been refurbished by local Iraqis. KBR had been contracted to provide maintenance on the building in 2007, the memo said.
Maseth was killed, the memo said, when an electrical water pump shorted out after he had stepped into the shower and turned on the water. An electrical current then passed through the water pipes to a metal shower hose in the shower.
Waxman, in his letter to Gates, said investigators blamed Maseth's death on improper grounding of the water pump.
"The circuit breaker was, in fact, bypassed," said Patrick Cavanaugh, an attorney hired by Harris and Maseth's father, Douglas Maseth.
KBR's contract, the memo said, "only required KBR to fix the building (plumbing and electricity) as things broke. KBR did an initial survey of the building upon assuming responsibility and noted several safety issues concerning the improper grounding of electrical devices.
"The contract did not cover fixing potential hazards so those issues were never addressed," the memo said.
KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said today that at the time of Maseth's death, "KBR was providing repair services at the facility in response to requests issued by the Army."
Maseth's death was only the latest in a series of electrocutions, Waxman wrote.
In all, 10 soldiers and two Marines are known to have been electrocuted, Waxman noted.
In October 2004, the Army issued a safety warning after five soldiers had been electrocuted that year alone, Waxman said. The warning noted that improper grounding of electrical wires is "a factor in nearly every electrocution," Waxman said.
Altmire said those deaths were "easily preventable."
"You wonder how it even could happen one time. But if a tragedy does occur once — because of a mistake — how could it possibly occur 12 times?" he asked.
In his letter to Gates, Waxman has asked for the names and addresses of all service personnel and contractors killed or seriously injured in electrical accidents.
He also wants details about KBR's assignments for making electrical repairs at the giant complex, as well as any reports about needs for rewiring at the facility.
Waxman has asked that the Pentagon respond to his request by April 4.
Maseth, an Army Ranger and Green Beret, was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. His twin brother is also serving in Iraq, and another another brother also is in the armed forces.
Today Maseth's parents filed suit against KBR in state court in Pittsburgh, seeking unspecified damages.
"I'd like to know who was accountable and why Ryan was permitted to live in a facility that was life-threatening," his mother said.