Oil field worker dies on the job north of Bakersfield

Oil field worker dies on the job north of Bakersfield »Play Video
The area of an oil field accident that left a pair of workers injured is seen Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in the area of Granite and James roads north of Bakersfield. One worker later died.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — One of two injured workers has died following an accident at the Live Oak Cogen plant north of Bakersfield. By Wednesday night, the victim was identified as 54-year-old Barry Snelson, of Bakersfield.

The incident happened around 9:45 that morning off South Granite Road, about three miles north of James Road. Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Patricia Ortiz told Eyewitness News their investigators were on the scene by the evening.

The workers were in a 15-foot tall tank. Kern County Fire Department crews rushed out, trying to rescue the men.

Fire Capt. Eric Coughran said it's not clear yet how the workers were hurt. One man ended up with a broken leg, the other was knocked unconscious.

"We know that something happened with the floor (of the tank)," Coughran said Wednesday afternoon. "We don't know if he hit his head on something or exactly what happened."

The Cal/OSHA spokeswoman said their investigators were told the workers were in the tank testing for leaks. She said that involved adding air pressure. The process also requires having a "false bottom" in the tank, Ortiz said.

She said it's not clear if that air pressure built up under the false bottom. Ortiz said people at the site reported hearing a "loud sound, like an explosion," and they'll check to see if that was the false bottom moving or jumping, leading to the men's injuries.

Ortiz stressed the investigation is just starting, and initial information can be incomplete or conflicting.

County fire crews reported they had slightly different information from the scene. Coughran said rescue crews were told the workers were in the big tank to clean up after a welding job the night before.

Coughran said there were no dangerous fumes in the tank. "No toxic fumes," Coughran said. "The tank was a water-filtering system."

The Kern County coroner's report also states the workers were inside a "water containment vessel." 

Coughran said rescue teams at first tried to reach the injured men through the side of the tank, but that didn't work because of the thick walls and number of pipes inside it.

Next, they worked to reach the workers through the top of the tank. It's 10 feet wide but had an opening of 18 inches. They ended up doing what he called a "high point" rescue.

"Basically, we have a tripod with a rope, and we send a firefighter down in the tank," Coughran said. "The firefighter puts a rescue harness on the patient, we pull the patient out of the tank."

Coughran said when they pulled Snelson out, an ambulance paramedic said he had died. The fire captain said when the firefighter had reached him inside the tank, Snelson had no pulse and wasn't breathing. He added fire crews saw no visible trauma.

Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Ortiz said their investigations can take up to six months, but are usually complete in two to four months. She said investigators will talk to employees, the company, check records, any past reports, and training procedures.

Ortiz said their current information is that one worker ended up with a fractured ankle, and the man who died suffered a head injury. She said one was described as a supervisor, and the other as a welder.

The rescue of the workers took a couple hours, but one victim could not be saved.

"We practice, and try to get everybody out safe," Coughran said. "It is a little disheartening, because we want to be able to take everybody, get everybody out safely, and get them home."