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Engineer Crushed by an Earthmover : Accident Causes 4th Industrial Fatality in March

Times Staff Writer

A 30-year-old soil engineer was crushed to death Thursday by the tire of an earthmover at a construction site in Laguna Niguel, authorities said.

It was the third industrial fatality in 4 days in Orange County and the fourth this month.

Theodore Cornelius Postma of Buena Park was kneeling with his back to the giant earthmover when one of its 10-foot-tall tires ran over him at 7:50 a.m. as he sampled soil, California Highway Patrol Officer Ken Daily said. Postma died instantly.

The heavy-equipment operator apparently did not see Postma or his parked pickup truck in the path of the huge earthmover, which measures about 13 feet tall and 11 feet wide, Daily said.

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George Salas, CHP investigating officer, said the operator was picking up and dropping dirt and beginning to make a sweeping right turn when the accident occurred on an extension of Pacific Parkway about 3 miles west of the San Diego Freeway. Postma was kneeling between his pickup and a large mound of dirt.

As the earthmover turned, it drove between the mound and the truck, Daily said. Apparently the right front tire rolled over Postma and the left rear tire ran over the bed of the pickup, he said.

The driver, employed by Nelson & Belding Construction Corp. of Gardena, did not realize what had happened until she saw the truck behind the earthmover, Daily said.

“When she actually made contact with the truck, she was looking back on the rear trailer to see if the (earthmover’s) doors were closed,” Daily said. “She didn’t even feel the impact.”

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The mound and truck had flags on them as safety precautions, Daily said. “They post (flags) wherever there are men on foot, for safety reasons,” he said. The driver “just didn’t see him. She is very upset.”

The incident is being investigated by state health and safety experts, but “there are no laws that really apply out in an area like that,” Daily said. “She hasn’t broken any laws.

“They are looking at why she might not have seen him. It’s just a matter of finding out what happened.”

Postma was an engineer with Schaefer-Dixon & Associates of Irvine, a soil testing firm, and was placing a small device in a hole 3 to 4 inches deep, Daily said. The buried device then sends radioactive emissions that can be measured to determine the density of the soil.

Because the device also was run over, county and state hazardous-materials experts were called to the scene, Daily said. But they did not find dangerous leaks or other problems.

To place the device in the ground takes only a brief time, Daily said. But “that put him (Postma) in a . . . vulnerable position. He didn’t see the heavy equipment coming and it struck him.”

“If I had to guess, maybe he just didn’t hear it coming.”

On March 1, construction worker Romulo Lopez, 52, of Perris was killed while sealing the inside of a 36-inch storm drain in Newport Beach when a nearby water line ruptured, releasing sand and water that swept him 200 yards.

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And on Monday, Steven Ward, 20, was crushed to death when a rack of lumber collapsed on him at the Home Club in Fountain Valley.

On Tuesday, Jorge Robledo, 30, of Placentia was killed when an explosion, apparently triggered by contaminated zinc powder, rocked Reliable Recovery Inc., an Anaheim metal refinery.

The state Department of Health ordered the plant closed Thursday until company officials submit an accident report and a plan detailing how they will prevent a similar occurrence.

Jim Marxen, department spokesman, said the action was taken because authorities still had not determined what caused the zinc to explode.

“I think everybody is tying to figure out what happened,” Marxen said. “We haven’t ruled anything out.”

Marxen said the decision to close the company was not that unusual. But, he said, “there are some unanswered questions.”


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