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The ultimate price 

click to enlarge BIGGEST MISTAKE? :  Work continues on the Nacimiento Water Project. Construction crews could have avoided digging in the area that resulted in a fatal accident last year, but they were placed in danger in order to avoid tearing down a water fountain, which project manager John Hollenbeck called his “biggest mistake” on the job. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BIGGEST MISTAKE? : Work continues on the Nacimiento Water Project. Construction crews could have avoided digging in the area that resulted in a fatal accident last year, but they were placed in danger in order to avoid tearing down a water fountain, which project manager John Hollenbeck called his “biggest mistake” on the job.
Two of the men who lost their lives building the Nacimiento Water Project may have been victims of an effort to save a water fountain in front of a fitness club. A year after their deaths, SLO County officials shelled out another $228,694 to pay for what one official called his biggest mistake.

 

On the evening of Oct. 2, 2008, construction workers Jake Gaines and Manuel Villagomez were trapped and drowned in a portion of the pipeline they were installing in Paso Robles. Their death was the result of confusion at the construction site when supervisors from Teichert Construction accidentally tore through a water utility line and flooded the trench where Gaines and Villagomez were working. But had the original plans been followed, the crews would have been working in another location that night—probably a safer location.

 

According to Nacimiento Project Manager John Hollenbeck, as he described to county supervisors on Oct. 6, the project was rerouted to avoid a “water feature” at Kennedy Club Fitness in Paso Robles. The original route would have taken the pipeline through the fountain in order to avoid a mess of underground utilities at the intersection of Niblick and North River roads in Paso Robles, where the accident occurred.

 

“And I’ll never abandon that type of feature again; I’ll tear it down,” Hollenbeck told supervisors, his voice dry with regret and humility. “That was my mistake: I was trying to save embarrassment of, you know, great big bulldozers out there knocking down this pretty feature, and it’s lost me money; two men lost their lives. It’s the biggest mistake I’ve made on this job.”

 

Hollenbeck and the rest of the project team would have been within legal rights to tear down the fountain. The original pipeline route was planned to go through an existing public utility easement near the club, but the fountain was built over that easement. According to Hollenbeck, the fountain “trespassed on that easement.”

 

Club owner Kevin Kennedy said Paso Robles planning officials gave him permission to build the fountain and other features because it was considered landscaping. He explained to New Times he was told at the time a permit wasn’t required—there was miscommunication between the city planning and building departments, he said—but wasn’t told the pipeline had been routed through his property.

 

“But had we known the water pipeline was coming through we would have said, ‘Hey build the pipeline and then we’ll come and build our improvements on top of it,’” Kennedy said.

 

In addition to the two lives lost, the rerouting required an amendment to add another $228,694 to the contract amount, according to a county
staff report.

 

Hollenbeck said he had a previous understanding with Kennedy Club Fitness owners that they would cover some of the cost, but admitted he hadn’t followed up. Kennedy acknowledged there was a verbal agreement, but said he hadn’t heard anything since.

 

Supervisor Frank Mecham, the mayor of Paso Robles at the time, said he would also contact the club owners.

 

“I think that there’s clearly partial blame there,” Mecham said.

 

Asked to respond, Kennedy said, “Ignorance is to blame.” ∆

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