Death repeats itself
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. No, Alatorre said, there was something that needed fixing at the job.
He would just work the morning at the Aguiar-Faria Dairy, where four months prior he had been hired as a welder at $8.75 an hour. It was solid work in the sprawling dairy country of California’s Central Valley.
Alatorre, who had entered the United States from Mexico illegally several years earlier, 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 their pens through an underground shaft to be pumped into a 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 a 30-foot concrete shaft until he stood knee-deep in manure.
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, 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 try 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 sound of a helicopter. Her sister called. Jose was hurt. Anjelica arrived while her husband’s body was still underground. A dozen trained rescuers with all the proper equipment labored for hours to retrieve the bodies.
Alatorre and Araisa were among 119 Mexican-born workers who died in California in 2001. 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.
Dairy owner Patrick 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.”
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.