The profound impact of a harrowing experience on December 8, 1995, forever imprinted on my memory, has driven me to become an unwavering advocate for safety in the workplace. This incident was the catalyst of my devotion to safeguarding lives and championing a safety culture.
That fateful day began like any other, a routine assignment on a snowy Friday afternoon. I was 21 years old and had been with Peoples Gas’ street department for only a few months so had been assigned the easy job of delivering materials to field crews. One of my stops was on Chicago’s northside, where Timothy O’Donnell’s crew was working to repair a gas main. I made the delivery and was on my way. Not five minutes later, I heard an urgent call for help and was abruptly thrust into a whirlwind of chaos and urgency. As radio waves crackled with distress, I raced back to the site.
Upon my return, the scene was surreal. Time slowed down as I witnessed my coworkers battling for their lives. O’Donnell lay incapacitated in the hole, struggling for breath. Another laborer was sprawled on the street beside the excavation, gasping for air. Suffocating natural gas fumes had claimed them. When I looked down into the excavation, I saw Javier Juarez, his skin an eerie navy blue, slumped lifeless on the gas main. This image haunts my memory to this day.
Amid the turmoil, I summoned help, radioing for the fire department and calling to nearby construction workers. Together, we pulled O’Donnell and Juarez from the hole. Juarez, the father of two young children, did not survive, and the ordeal left an indelible mark on all involved.
This traumatic incident reshaped my purpose. In the years that followed, I embraced a pivotal role in advocating for safety. Becoming a steward and later trustee and facilitator of Local 18007’s PEACE (Planning Effective Actions, Controlling Exposures) peer-to-peer safety team, I endeavored to prevent others from experiencing the horrors I had witnessed. By sharing my story, a cautionary tale of how swiftly disaster can strike, I seek to instill a culture of vigilance within our organization.
Safety, I realized, is not just a set of policies and procedures but a narrative that connects past and present. By preserving stories like that of Javier Juarez, we arm new workers with an understanding of the stakes involved. In advocating for safety, I honor Javier’s life and the memory of that chilling day in December. Through my efforts and the stories I share, I aspire to illuminate the path toward a safer, more secure workplace. The lessons of the past serve as the foundation for a future where every worker returns home unharmed, a testament to our enduring commitment to each other’s well-being.