By James Bell and Becky Kiser
What began as routine work on a sewer line in the 700 block of Main Street in Hays turned to tragedy Tuesday as the trench dug to access the line collapsed early Tuesday afternoon, killing two workers and injuring a third in the 11-foot deep trench.
Hays Public Information Officer Kim Rupp confirmed Tuesday night the three workers were employees of Hays-based JCorp.
Families of the three men were at the scene, sequestered in the nearby Ellis County Administration Center. The building was without water and sewer services during the operation, according to Rupp.
Rupp declined to identify any victims and said “a news release will be made available Wednesday.”
The call came into 911 at 1:36 p.m. alerting emergency responders to the accident. “It was a trench collapse,” Rupp said. “The dirt caved in as the three were in the trench.” Underground work on sewer lines had been in progress in the area over the past several days.
During the operation, Main was closed to traffic from Sixth to Eighth, along with several blocks to the east of the area.
Dozens of law enforcement, fire fighters and city of Hays workers struggled to secure the hole and rescue the trapped workers.
A first victim was rescued shortly after the accident happened and transported to HaysMed. By 4:30 p.m. Rupp had confirmed the operation had changed from rescue to recovery for the other two workers still trapped in the trench.
“The Hays Fire Department, Ellis County Rural Fire Department, Ellis and Victoria Fire Departments, and the Northwest Kansas Regional Technical Rescue Team are conducting a rescue operation of two victims in the trench. The Ellis County Coroner, Dr. Lyle Noordhoek, is investigating the accident,” Rupp said in an announcement around 4:30 p.m.
“American Red Cross, Ellis County Emergency Management, Kansas Highway Patrol, and Ellis County EMS are also involved and working diligently to recover the victims,” he added.
One of the two bodies was recovered about 5:30 p.m. and transported to a local funeral home.
As darkness set over Hays, special lighting and large construction equipment from APAC-Hays were moved to the area to assist in the recovery efforts. Hays officials, including Mayor Eber Phelps, City Manager Toby Dougherty, Utilities Director Johnny O’Connor, Public Works Director Greg Sund, and Assistant Public Works Director John Braun were also at the scene.
It was another four hours before the second body was finally recovered about 9:25 p.m. and taken to a local funeral home. A Hays priest said prayers at the site as the rescue workers removed their hardhats and bowed their heads.
“The rescuers were painstakingly removing dirt from the trench one bucket at a time,” Rupp said. “APAC lowered a large piece of equipment into the trench to shore up the trench walls so no more dirt could fall in while they were in there working.”
“They had to be very careful for their own safety and the victims.”
The trench and scene were finally secured by about 10:15 p.m. Rupp said the street will remain closed Wednesday as the sewer line work is finished.