By Robin Acton
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Three years and three months before Ryan Maseth stepped into a shower Jan. 2 in Baghdad, an Army safety specialist identified electrocution as a "killer of soldiers."
Still, when the 24-year-old Shaler Green Beret turned on the faucet, water flowed from a pump powered by an improperly grounded electrical system manufactured in China. Borne on water, an electrical current surged through the pipes, out of the shower head and into his body.
His heart stopped.
Maseth's electrocution, the latest of 14 among service personnel in Iraq since 2003, set into motion a series of events to determine how and why these deaths occurred.
In March, a congressional committee started an investigation into all Iraq electrocutions. A month later, Maseth's parents sued the defense contractor responsible for the Chinese electrical system, alleging it failed to meet U.S. safety standards. And now, families across the country say they want more detailed information about the earlier deaths of loved ones.
"I want answers, not revenge," said Bart Cedergren of South St. Paul, Minn., who suspects his son died of electrocution Sept. 11, 2005, near Iskandariyah, Iraq.
Back then, the Navy said Petty Officer 3rd Class David A. Cedergren, 25, died of natural causes after being found unconscious in a shower stall, he said. Although Cedergren asked for additional information, he said he received only documents with black marks covering specifics of the investigation that the Navy has closed.
"I know for sure that there were problems where he was, near the electric generating station, because there was a history of individuals getting shocked," Cedergren said. "I just want to know what happened. He was strong and healthy."
No one knows whether everyone serving in Iraq is aware of the potential for electrocution, despite warnings in an October 2004 report by Army safety specialist Brett Blount. He wrote that five soldiers were electrocuted in that fiscal year alone and advised military leaders to get electrical experts to inspect generators and electrical systems.
Frank Trent of the Army Corps of Engineers said in the report that improper grounding was a "factor in nearly every electrocution and is a serious threat for soldiers and civilians there."
"We've had several shocks in showers and near misses here in Baghdad, as well as in other parts of the country," Trent said. "As we install temporary and permanent power on our projects, we must ensure we require our contracts to properly ground electrical systems."
The electric shock that struck Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Everett, 23, of Huntsville, Texas, far exceeded a "near miss."
It was dead on target.
On the evening of Sept. 7, 2005, Everett was electrocuted while power washing sand from a Humvee in a motor pool in Al Taqqadum. It was late, and dark, and no one saw him on the ground until other soldiers noticed water shooting into the air. His mother, Larraine McGee, later learned that they were shocked while trying to help him.
"They couldn't get to him until the power was turned off," McGee said.
She remembers standing at the kitchen sink window facing her front porch as two men in uniform and her priest walked to the front door. She knew then that her son, an outdoorsman who volunteered to go to Iraq, would not come home.
Never, for the rest of her life, will she forget that night.
She said Army officers said they were sorry, and that because of what happened to her son, all of the generators across Iraq would be fixed. She felt comforted, recalling that they gave her the impression that Christopher's case was unique, the first of its kind to strike unsuspecting soldiers.
They didn't tell her about Spc. Marcos O. Nolasco, 34, of Chino, Calif., who was electrocuted while showering at a base in Baiji on May 18, 2004. No one mentioned Spc. Marvin A. Camposiles, 25, of Austell, Ga., who was electrocuted April 17, 2005, while performing routine generator maintenance in Samarra. They said nothing about Spc. Chase R. Whitham, 21, of Harrisburg, Ore., who died May 8, 2005, when an electrical current surged through a Mosul swimming pool.
"That, to me, makes it inexcusable. It's got to stop," McGee said. "Now, I'm angry. It's such a basic thing to ground electricity. It's carelessness, negligence."
It is unclear whether all electrocution injuries and deaths in Iraq are listed in military casualty reports, because they often are identified as accidents or noncombat-related incidents.
Lt. Col. George Wright, a public affairs officer based at the Pentagon, said the Department of Defense releases names of casualties about 24 hours after notifying relatives. At that point, investigations into noncombat deaths are incomplete.
"That's why we are vague and simply indicate that a death is 'noncombat related,' " Wright said.
A casualty report prepared by the Defense Manpower Data Center listed 14 electrocution deaths in nonhostile situations and two in hostile situations from Oct. 7, 2001, through May 3, 2008.
Electrocution injuries totaled 19, according to the report.
About a month after Maseth's death, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, received two e-mails about military casualty reports that disturbed him.
A Feb. 14 e-mail to Altmire from Kelly Widener, director of strategic communications for the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center, reported that 10 fatalities by electrocution were identified only as accidents. The other, sent on Feb. 15 by Sgt. Jennifer Evitts, a Marine liaison, listed two more.
Altmire immediately asked U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California's 30th District and chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to investigate the deaths. Waxman wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, seeking all reports concerning Maseth and the names of all U.S. military or contractor personnel injured or killed by electrocution in Iraq facilities maintained under U.S. government contracts.
Waxman asked for contracts, orders and reports submitted by and issued to Kellogg Brown & Root Services Inc., a Texas-based defense contractor whose nearly 18,000 employees in Iraq perform building maintenance and other services for the military at facilities where the electrocutions occurred.
Karen Lightfoot, Waxman's spokeswoman, said the committee received some documents and expects to receive more as the investigation advances.
"We're trying to determine who should be held accountable, and whether this could have been prevented," Altmire said.
Meanwhile, Maseth's parents, Cheryl Harris of Cranberry and Douglas Maseth of Allison Park, turned to the courts for help.
In April, they sued KBR in federal court, alleging the firm inspected the facilities at the Radwaniyah complex where their son died. They claim the contractor knew that hazardous conditions existed from improper grounding of faulty electrical systems manufactured in China for sale only to countries outside the United States because they did not comply with U.S. electrical safety standards.
The wrongful death lawsuit contends that the contractor knew of other electrocutions and failed to repair electrical problems, despite orders to do so from the Defense Contract Management Agency. It adds that KBR did nothing to warn U.S. troops.
Their attorney, Patrick Cavanaugh of Pittsburgh, said the family is seeking accountability from the defense contractor, as well as some answers about how he died.
They view his death as senseless.
"You don't expect your son to step into a shower and get killed," Harris told the Tribune-Review after Maseth's death.
Heather Browne, KBR's director of corporate communications, wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review that the company's "thoughts and prayers remain with Staff Sergeant Maseth's family." She said the company's commitment to safety is unwavering.
"Based on our own current knowledge and the information we have gathered to date, KBR has found no evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and reported electrocutions," Browne wrote.
Meanwhile, in Salem, Ore., Mark Whitham is not surprised by the number and frequency of electrocutions in Iraq.
During an interview on the fourth anniversary of his son's death in a Mosul swimming pool, Whitham did not blame the military or the defense contractor.
"If anything, it's the Iraqis' fault. Their rules for electrical grounding are not as strict as ours," Whitham said.
"Not that there isn't anger there, but it's not going to bring Chase back. It's not going to change anything. ... We sure miss him."
Robin Acton can be reached at email@example.com or 724-830-6295.