Ex-foreman gets probation in deaths of Nacimiento pipeline workers

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 5, 2013 

A foreman who worked on the Nacimiento Water Project was sentenced Friday to three years of probation for a work-related accident that caused two construction workers to drown.

Henry Duggins of Sacramento had pleaded no contest to a felony in February for violating a labor law involving the death of an employee.

In October 2008, Duggins led a Teichert Construction crew that was working on the pipeline — designed to bring millions of gallons of drinking water to the county from Nacimiento Lake — when Jacob Gaines, 24, of Bakersfield, and Manuel Villagomez (referred to by family as Manuelo Arriaga), 38, of Elk Grove, were killed. The two were working in a pipe when an excavator hit a nearby water line, which then flooded the 10-foot-deep trench that contained the pipe at the intersection of South River and Niblick roads in Paso Robles.

Gaines’ mother on Friday told the court she wonders what thoughts went through her son’s mind as the water rushed in.

“Did he hear Manuel yell?” said Cindy Conte, who has since developed a fear of water. “Did he hear the rush of the water?”

When offered a chance to speak, Duggins initially apologized.

“I’m extremely sorry for what happened,” he said. “It has been very tough on everybody involved.”

While investigators determined that Duggins contributed to the deaths, Gaines’ family allowed him to make a statement, hoping it would help with closure. Instead, Duggins — who will also perform 1,000 hours of community service — spent much time defending himself.

“I wasn’t a bad foreman,” said Duggins, who hasn’t worked since. “It’s actually the opposite of that.”

But as Duggins continued, Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera cut him off, saying he was no longer offering empathy. Instead, he said, Duggins was defending his actions.

Conte’s husband said Duggins’ contention — “Believe it or not, I was the poster child for that (safety) for the company” — wasn’t true.

Tony Conte — another Teichert foreman, who was on site the night the accident occurred — said he personally had warned Duggins about digging while men were in pipes, knowing buried water lines were nearby.

“He chose to ignore the warning signs that were there,” said Conte, a foreman for 17 years. “He’s arrogant and, as you can tell in his statement, he was kind of full of himself.”

Tony Conte said Gaines was a member of his crew, but Duggins asked to borrow him to perform flagging duties. Eventually, he wound up in the pipe, removing braces with Villagomez. When he heard the excavator fire up, Tony Conte said, he yelled at Duggins, “What the (expletive) are you doing?”

The excavator, driven by Duggins’ son, made two swipes, Tony Conte said, hitting the waterline on the second. As water shot out, another worker told the men in the pipe to get out, but they were unable to.

“Within minutes, it was overflowing,” said Deputy District Attorney Eric Dobroth.

After the accident, Tony Conte called his wife, who then called Gaines’ father, screaming. The family drove from Bakersfield to Paso Robles and arrived in time to see both victims in body bags.

There were no members of the Villagomez family in court. But both families have placed memorials at the site.

Villagomez left a wife and two children.

During Gaines’ funeral, his 2-year-old daughter said, “Daddy has a boo boo,” according to family members.

Before heading to the site of his death, where they planned to erect a new metal cross on Friday, family members said Gaines was a hard worker but also the life of the party.

“He wanted to make sure everybody was having as good a time as he was,” his mother said.

Having worked at Teichert nearly two years, Tony Conte said, Gaines eventually wanted to become a foreman there.

“That was his goal — he wanted my job,” he joked.

Gaines’ family said they had hoped for a harsher sentence, though they acknowledged it was an unusual case.

“He (Duggins) got off very lightly,” said Bob Gaines, Jacob Gaines’ father. “He had all the power to make things different that night.”

The deaths of Gaines and Villagomez were two of three fatalities during the construction of the project. In August 2009, Timothy Nelson, 29, of Ojai was run over by a dump truck at the Camp Roberts segment of the pipeline.

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