Without safety gear, workers die at dairy;

Mexican employees drowned working in manure-filled shaft

Justin Pritchard

Associated Press (Published in VenturaCounty Star)

March 14, 2004

GUSTINE, Calif -- Jose Alatorre drowned in liquid cow manure on his first wedding anniversary.

His wife, Anjelica, wanted him to skip work that day. His mother had the baby and they could relax before a nice dinner, maybe take a walk in the park like he enjoyed. No, Alatorre said, there was something that needed fixing at the job. He would just work the morning.

Alatorre got in his gray 1989 Thunderbird, his first car, bought so he wouldn't have to bum rides with friends to visit Anjelica when he lived half an hour away in Modesto. Past the shanties on the other side of the railroad tracks, he stopped at the Aguiar-Faria Dairy, where for four months he had worked as a welder at $8.75 an hour -- just over $18,000 a year.

It was solid work in the Central Valley's sprawling dairy country.

Anjelica met Jose at a wedding in the Central Valley town of Gustine in 1999 when he asked her to dance.

Before the music stopped, he insisted confessing two things: He had crossed the border illegally from Mexico, and he didn't have a car -- yet. His candor won her.

"He was an honest person. He just went straight to everything," Anjelica said. "I really liked that."

Alatorre was still a jokester at 22, but one thing that turned his smile was the dairy's stench.

The 1,700 cows produced about 200,000 gallons of waste each day that washed from the pens through an underground shaft to be pumped into a large rectangular holding lagoon.

On Feb. 22, 2001, the pump was clogged, so a supervisor told Alatorre and two other men to fix it, according to the government's accident investigation. Alatorre scrambled down the 30-foot concrete shaft until he stood knee deep in manure.

Consumed by fumes

Hydrogen sulfide gas from the manure carries a warning smell like rotten eggs. At the bottom of the shaft, poking at the pump in near darkness, Alatorre yelled up that the air didn't seem good and he was going to come up. He began to climb, then fell, face first.

Just before he lost consciousness, as he thrashed for several seconds, a panic gag reflex forced Alatorre to gulp more than a soda can's worth of excrement.

Co-worker Enrique Araisa scampered into the shaft to rescue his friend, but he too quickly passed out. Another, Juan Caballero, went down far enough to tie a nylon rope to Araisa's arm before he reversed course and summoned help.

Anjelica Alatorre remembers walking outside to investigate the unusual sound of a helicopter. Her sister called. Jose had fallen, was hurt. Anjelica arrived while Jose's body was still underground. A dozen trained rescuers with all the proper equipment labored several hours to retrieve the bodies.

Alatorre and Araisa were among 119 Mexican-born workers who died in California in 2001, the second highest annual death total for the state on government record. An Associated Press analysis found that California has one of the lowest death rates for Mexican workers, but that the rate is still greater than the average for U.S. workers.

Though the death rate for Mexicans in California was still greater than the U.S.-born worker average, The AP's investigation found, it was far lower than Mexican death rates in Western states such as Colorado and Washington and regions such as the Southeast.

Dairy owner indicted

Dairy owner Pat Faria wasn't on site when the accident occurred -- but prosecutors are charging him with involuntary manslaughter because there are indications he knew the dangers of the shaft.

As a volunteer county firefighter, he aced the test on safety in confined spaces. But he hadn't relayed that information to his workers, prosecutors say, and didn't supply them with proper fans to ventilate the air or a harness to extract a stricken worker.

Faria could have hired a professional crew to clean the pump for about $600, according to prosecutor Gale Filter, instead of sending down three low-wage dairyhands.

"It's about money, M-O-N-E-Y," Filter told the grand jury that indicted Faria. "There is absolutely no doubt what the motive was."

Filter also showed a picture of Alatorre, smiling in his Sunday-best cowboy hat, to grand jurors. They needed to see Alatorre and Araisa not as an illegal immigrants, but as people who expect the same from life as everyone else.

Faria's trial is scheduled to begin in April. His lawyer said Faria does not want to discuss the case.

The deaths received a burst of attention, but just 18 months later, at a second dairy in this same small town, another Mexican-born worker died in the same way.