Dangerous working conditions are being blamed after two Mexican men suffocated Friday morning in a trench cave-in in the tony Indian Springs Ranch neighborhood.
The trench they were digging may have collapsed hours before a passer-by noticed an idling piece of heavy equipment and called for help.
Juan Baez-Sanchez, 42, and Victoriano Garcia-Perez, 56, were apparently alone on the job site at 120 S. Indian Springs Drive. Law enforcement found a lack of safety precautions in their initial investigation of the residential construction site in the gated community, and an investigation is now underway by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“It seems throughout our investigation that proper precautions were not in place,” Teton County Undersheriff Matt Carr said.
There was no shoring in the trench, which was 12 to 15 feet deep and 4 feet wide, Carr said. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS workers shored up the trench walls during the eight-hour recovery effort.
The men died from compression asphyxiation, Teton County Coroner Brent Blue found, and although the manner was accidental, he said the lack of safety shoring of the trench walls was a contributing factor.
The collapse is not being treated as a crime at this time and no charges have been filed.
“We have no criminal investigation underway or anything,” Sgt. Todd Stanyon said.
Yet the families of the deceased believe the owner of the property, Jamie Mackay, employed the two men and cut corners that cost them their lives.
“They look at us like we’re just Mexican people, we mean nothing to no one,” said Isabel Baez, Baez-Sanchez’s sister-in-law.
Mackay, a Wilson developer, issued a statement but did not respond to questions, including whether the men were working for him.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of life, and express my sincere sympathies to the families of the two workers,” Mackay said in an email. “I have cooperated with the authorities involved, and will continue to do so as we try to understand what happened.”
OSHA’s investigation could take more than a month.
“We don’t have any more information right now because it’s so early on in the investigation,” said Ty Stockton, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services communications manager. It’s agency policy not to comment on active investigations.
An OSHA fact sheet on trenching and excavation safety says trench collapses cause “dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries each year” and that trenches deeper than 5 feet require a “protective system unless the excavation is made entirely of stable rock.” Protective systems can include sloping, shoring or shielding.
OSHA standards require that trenches be inspected daily because conditions can change, and say they should be evaluated by a “competent person” before workers enter.
Supported families in Mexico
Baez-Sanchez’s family members painted a picture of a hardworking family man who shouldn’t have died that way. He is survived by a wife and two daughters, 9 and 14 years old. His family lives in Mexico, and he sent money to them regularly.
“He built them a beautiful home in Mexico,” sister-in-law Baez said. “And he stayed behind to continue to support them. He was planning on leaving next year; he was here for so many years. That was his wish, to have accumulated enough money. He was planning on opening up his own business.”
Baez lives in Idaho Falls. She’s been video-chatting with her brother-in-law’s family and said the distance made his death harder to process.
“We can sit here and touch him and they can’t,” Baez said. “The way they were crying was really heartbreaking.”
She’ll remember her brother-in-law as someone who loved to play soccer and basketball. He also loved to dance.
Baez-Sanchez mostly worked as a landscaper for the past 15 years.
Although deputies said they didn’t know who Baez-Sanchez and Garcia-Perez were working for at the time of the accident, Baez said she thought he was working for Mackay.
“Someone had told him to do this job,” she said. “He didn’t know codes, he didn’t know regulations. He was just doing the job he was told to do. Jamie was just cutting corners and it cost him his life. There is no price on a life.”
She wants Mackay to apologize and pay for both men’s funeral services and the cost to send them home to Mexico. In the absence of that so far, Baez is in the process of setting up a GoFundMe page for those costs and to support Baez-Sanchez’s two daughters.
“All we want is for them to send him home and take care of everything because they would still be here if he had taken safety precautions,” Baez said. “How dare you sit there and act like his life meant nothing.”
She’s upset with what feels like exploitation and said that Mexican workers are often assumed to not know legalities and not be able to sue if something goes wrong. They shouldn’t be seen as expendable, she said.
“That has to stop,” Baez said. “More people have to come forward.”
Marco Antonio Garcia-Perez, Victoriano’s nephew who lives in Jackson, said his uncle arrived here around 2006. He remembers him as a hardworking man whose priority was supporting his family in Mexico.
“He wasn’t content around the house not doing anything,” the younger Garcia-Perez said in Spanish. “He always, more than anything, dedicated himself to his work.”
He said he saw his uncle continue working after a knee injury, and that he would find a way to work elsewhere when a job took a break.
Putting together the pieces
An abandoned excavator tipped off a delivery driver that something was wrong Friday afternoon at the site. The trench was being dug to put in a drainage pipe, and the two men were the only workers at the site at the time of the collapse.
According to deputies the driver discovered the excavator, still running with nobody around, and then saw Baez-Sanchez partially buried.
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office was notified by dispatch of a trench collapse at approximately 3:03 p.m. Friday. EMS personnel were first on the scene at 3:13 p.m. and found Baez-Sanchez dead.
In the process of digging out Baez-Sanchez, Garcia-Perez was found at 5:25 p.m. Garcia-Perez was found beneath Baez-Sanchez.
The last responding units left the scene at 11:16 p.m. after ensuring there were no additional victims.
Family members are trying to piece together the puzzle from phone messages. Baez thinks the accident happened in the morning.
“We know that it happened before lunch,” Baez said. “Their lunch boxes were still intact.”
Baez said the positioning of the bodies makes sense, and that she believes her brother-in-law jumped in to save his coworker.
“He died trying to save him,” she said. “He could have let his friend die and gone to call for help. He could have let that happen. But he wasn’t that kind of person. He would give the shirt off his back if he had to. He was that person.”
There will be a viewing for both men today and Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Valley Mortuary. Baez feels responsible for helping Garcia-Perez get to his final resting place.
“They died together, we’re going to bury them together,” she said. “That means we have to raise double the money, but we can’t leave Victoriano. We won’t leave him out of the loop. We will help.”
—Allie Gross contributed to this article.
— This story has been corrected. The story mistakenly listed a company as a potential employer of the two men, the company said the men were not employed by them. — Ed.