Investigation launched on Nichols death

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has launched an investigation into the death of a 22-year-old Coupeville man.

Willie Dayton died Monday after a drone helicopter fell from approximately eight feet above the floor of the hold, killing him and injuring two others. He was working at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland.

Labor and Industries Spokeswoman Elaine Fisher confirmed that the department is investigating the cause of the accident. The process could last up to six months.

“We are looking at what the safety regulations in the setting are and were they being followed,” Fisher said.

She would not comment further on the details of the investigation.

Nichols Brothers CEO Matt Nichols said that crews were lifting the Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter that Northrop Grumman produces, out of the holding area of the X-Craft, a high-speed war ship built for the Navy.

An eye bolt, which is a bolt secured into the top of the rotor of the helo with a circular opening at the top, failed. This caused the craft to fall and bounce, crushing Dayton.

“Their picking eye bolt broke and it took a funny bounce and it killed him,” Nichols said.

Nichols said it is common practice to use the eye bolts to lift objects. The Fire Scout weighs approximately 2,550 lbs.

“They’re very safe and we’ll continue to use eyebolts,” Nichols said.

Northrop Grumman is also investigating the accident, company spokeswoman Cynthia Curiel said. Workers were moving the aircraft off ship to transport it after it was on display for the X-Craft’s christening, she said.

“There’s no time frame for the investigation,” Curiel said.

The two men who were injured were treated at Whidbey General Hospital and released that night. Both returned to work Tuesday, Nichols said. Grief counselors and pastors were on site to help employees, he said.

This is the first work fatality at the ship yard, Nichols said.

“This has never happened to us in our 41 years here,” he said. “We’re very heart broken.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 82 people died in work-place accidents during 2003 in Washington. Of those, three involved cranes.

The company had been the subject of state safety inspections 20 times since 1991, with five of those taking place since July 2002, Fisher said. Inspectors found no violations during those recent inspections.

However, according to U.S. Department of Labor data, an inspection at Nichols Brothers in 1996 resulted in the company being fined $3,285 for six different safety violations.

All six were classified as serious violations. Subsequent inspections yielded clean results. Fisher said the violations included insufficient fire protection equipment for employees who responded to fires, fall hazards of up to 17 feet while working on a ship and unsafe portable ladders.

Crane operation is subject to certain rules. Under the Washington Administrative Code, “loads shall not be swung or suspended over the heads of employees” and “at no time shall an employee be permitted to place himself in hazardous position between a swinging load and a fixed object.”

Fisher said she could not comment if Nichols employees were following the rules while lifting the helo.

Dayton’s brother, Eddie, said that Dayton normally operated the elevator and spent his days getting to know his passengers. Dayton had only worked at the yard since November.

Nichols would not comment on why Dayton was assisting in the lifting of the craft.

“I can’t talk about those things,” he said. “You’re going a lot further than I can go at this time.”

Memorial services are at 2 p.m. today at the South Whidbey Assembly of God at 5373 Maxwelton Road in Langley.

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