Trench caves in

The walls of this trench collapsed on and buried Ethan Owen. He was sore but otherwise OK.

By Dave Russell


The N.C. Department of Labor and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating a Nov. 11 construction site incident that left a man buried over his head in a trench.

Cullowhee resident Ethan Owen, 26, worked for Site Development Corporation, based out of Cliffside, with an equipment yard in Sylva.

Owen was in a trench laying storm drain pipe that afternoon for a student apartment complex on South Painter Road in Cullowhee when a 10-foot wall collapsed, he said.

“I was the only one in the ditch, and as I went to turn around and come out on top of this piece of pipe we had just laid, they all started hollering, ‘watch out, watch out’ and by the time I could see it, it had fallen over me and covered me from the waist down,” Owen said.

Nathan Holbrook, 35, of Lake Junaluska, jumped off the trackhoe and tried to pull Owen out.

“He put his arms around me, trying to get my legs out, and before he could pull me out another section of the wall fell and covered me completely up,” Owen said. “His head was still sticking out, but mine wasn’t. It just went from daylight to dark real quick.”

Holbrook injured his shoulder during the rescue attempt.

Owen and Holbrook walked without aid to the ambulances and were treated and released from Harris Regional Hospital.

Denese Ballew of the N.C. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Feb. 12 called The Sylva Herald requesting photographs of the trench.

The OSHA website indicates the agency that same day opened a case in response to a complaint about a trench at 66 South Painter Road.

The case is open and no more information is available at this time.

The developer of the South Painter Road 248-bedroom project, called Bellamy Western, is Mallory and Evans, of Atlanta. According to Jackson County tax records, the owner of the 11.84-acre tract is WCU Student Housing LLC.

“We have received no communication from the N.C. Department of Labor,” Mallory and Evans spokeswoman Terri Thornton said. “There is no litigation. Keep in mind that we require all contractors and their subcontractors hired to construct projects to be compliant with all OSHA standards.”

It’s not the first time Site Development Corp. has been in trouble regarding excavations.

Following a September planned inspection with an emphasis on trenches, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the firm three citations for violating what it terms “specific excavation requirements. 

All three were labeled “serious,” though no further details are available on the OSHA website as to the exact nature of the infractions. OSHA levied a penalty of $7,500 for the problems at 1609 Olivette Road in Woodfin. Site Development Corp. addressed one of the issues and was not fined the resulting $2,000. The two parties reached a $4,400 settlement in the case, which was closed Jan. 14.

Site Development Corporation is the same contractor working on the Millennial Apartments, a 500-bed apartment complex a few miles away plagued by erosion problems. The firm has not replied to inquiries about either issue.

That development is a public-private partnership between Wilmington-based Zimmer Development Co. and Western Carolina University.