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No One Saw How Worker Died at Dump

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stymied by the lack of witnesses, investigators were unable to explain Friday how a 25-year-old garbage collector was killed when he was buried beneath 6 feet of trash at a county landfill in San Marcos.

“There were no witnesses and, so far, only speculation,” said Larry Van Dusen, a spokesman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know how he ended up beneath the garbage.”

The body of Guillermo Ceseno of Escondido was found in a standing position, leaning slightly backward. The body was discovered shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday by searchers who, for 12 hours and aided by specially trained dogs and sound detectors, had combed by hand and with rakes through an estimated 15 tons of garbage.

Under floodlights that cast long shadows and an eerie glow through incoming fog, one of the estimated 200 searchers who had gathered at the site uncovered first the man’s arm, 6 feet beneath where the searchers first began digging.

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Watching nearby were Ceseno’s father and two brothers. The victim’s wife lives in Ensenada.

The San Diego County medical examiner’s office said Ceseno died of “multiple body injuries,” the result of being “crushed and buried beneath trash.”

The futile rescue efforts included a sonic sounding team from North Island Naval Air Station and another from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, as well as four search-and-rescue dogs--including one specially trained to search through trash.

Ceseno was last seen alive when he waved an “all-clear” signal to the driver of his garbage truck, meaning the truck’s 10 tons of trash had been unloaded from its hydraulically tilted trash compartment, said Jack McDermott, general manager of the Escondido Disposal Co.

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The driver, Luis Romero, told authorities that he then drove the truck away from the dumping site to lower and clean the trash compartment, and that he didn’t realize until 20 minutes later--when he was ready to leave the landfill--that his partner was nowhere to be found.

There was only one other truck dumping at the same time as Romero, McDermott said, although other trucks at the bustling landfill were queued up for their turn. On a typical day, 200 to 300 garbage trucks dump their loads at the San Marcos landfill.

Fifteen minutes after failing to find Ceseno, Romero notified his supervisor. By the time authorities arrived at the scene and called a halt to further garbage dumping 45 minutes later, 15 more trucks had dumped their loads in the area where Ceseno had last been seen, said San Marcos Fire Chief Harry Townsend, who coordinated the rescue efforts.

Bulldozers were plying the garbage all the while, compacting it and moving it around to make room for more incoming loads.

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On Friday, authorities said they were without a clue as to how Ceseno got caught in the garbage.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea what happened,” said Don Amos, district manager for Cal-OSHA, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Agency, which investigates industrial accidents. “We’ve had engineers out there all day at the scene, and we don’t have any facts yet.”

Gary Stephany, director of environmental health services for the county’s Department of Health Services, said he had no explanation for the accident.

“We don’t know what could have gone wrong that would have caused this,” said Stephany, who is investigating the accident on behalf of state solid waste management officials.

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The safety officer for Herzog Contracting Co., which operates the landfill under contract with the county, declined specific comment.

“It’s a death that’s unexplainable at this time,” Mike Maguire said. “There are no witnesses, and no one is aware of what occurred.”

Some officials speculated Friday that Ceseno might have been inundated by the trash of a truck that was unloading beside his, or tripped and fell to the ground while walking back to his own truck, and been buried by the trash of the next incoming truck, being unable, through the din and commotion of the landfill, to be heard.

Townsend said he wondered whether Ceseno might have tried to retrieve something from the garbage being dumped--whether from his truck or another--and was unable to escape the crush of falling garbage.

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McDermott, Ceseno’s supervisor, discounted that possibility.

“He wasn’t caught by his own garbage. He had already given the all-clear,” McDermott said. “He’s worked for us for nine months, and had a very professional attitude toward his job.

“Because no one saw what happened, everything will be conjecture. The investigative authorities will have to piece this together, whatever they can, but I don’t know if we’ll ever know what happened.”


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