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Avista worker killed at elementary school

Fri., June 1, 2007

An Avista Utilities employee died and a school teacher was injured Thursday during a science demonstration witnessed by about 600 students at Hiawatha Elementary School in Othello, Wash.

Line foreman Robert “Bob” D. Smith, 50, was in an elevated utility bucket along with a teacher at the school’s annual egg drop. The truck’s extended boom separated from its base, and the bucket crashed to the ground, according to a news release from Othello Police Chief Steve Dunnagan.

Smith and fifth-grade teacher Melissa Martinez were thrown from the bucket. Smith died from apparent head injuries, the release said.

Martinez, a first-year teacher at the school, was taken to Othello Community Hospital. She was treated for non-life-threatening injuries and was transferred to another hospital for further care, police said.

A 23-year Avista veteran, Smith lived in Othello and his now-grown children went to Hiawatha Elementary, fourth-grade teacher Kathy Carlton said. Smith had been worked the annual experiment for years.

“He loved doing it,” she said. “He loved being a part of it.”

The demonstration started about 1 p.m., and involved student-constructed devices that protect an egg dropped from 20 to 30 feet. Several teachers had gone up to drop the eggs, which are part of a “fun science” curriculum in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, Carlton said.

About 45 minutes into the demonstration, the bucket crashed.

The children were “a good distance away” and none was hurt, said George Juarez, Othello School District superintendent. School employees immediately took the children inside the school.

“They were scared. They were concerned,” Carlton said. “They knew it was an emergency situation, so they were concerned.”

In addition to the kindergartners through sixth-graders, staff members and some parents were in attendance.

“A lot of (parents) took their kids home,” Carlton said. “A lot of them came in the rooms with us to make sure things were OK.”

Counselors were quickly called in to talk with the shaken-up children.

“It was a really, I thought, well-taken-care-of situation,” Carlton said. “It was scary.”

Counselors will also be available as school resumes today. Staff members will work to make sure things seem normal enough for the first-grade class to hold its annual luau, Carlton said.

Hiawatha Elementary’s last week of classes is next week.

Word of the incident spread fast through the community of about 6,100 south of Moses Lake.

Juarez offered his “deepest sympathy for the family of the Avista employee who passed away, and also our employee.”

Late Thursday, Avista had not determined an official cause of the malfunction.

“We know that the bucket fell to the ground, but we don’t have any information about how, or structurally what happened,” Avista spokeswoman Jessie Wuerst said.

Investigators from Avista, the Othello Police Department and the state Department of Labor and Industries responded to the incident. Labor and Industries will continue the investigation.


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