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Sources: No one manned compactor controls the day of fatality

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 02/12/2014 12:00 AM
Updated 02/11/2014 11:16 PM

On Tuesday morning, New London Mayor Daryl Finizio posted an announcement on his official Facebook page that the city's transfer station, which has been closed since a city resident was killed in a compactor accident Jan. 30, would reopen today.

Floyd Smeeton, a much-respected city resident, a widower who lived for many years on Borodell Place, was killed after apparently falling into the transfer station compactor hopper while unloading trash.

Several people familiar with the incident told me recently that the control room at the compactor, which has glass windows overlooking the machine, was not manned at the time of the accident.

People who first saw the fallen Smeeton in harm's way, after finding no one in the control room to stop the machine, ran some distance to a nearby transfer station office to get help, according to people familiar with what happened.

By the time transfer station employees arrived back at the compactor controls, to turn off the trash-crushing machine, it was too late, the sources say.

Residents who use the transfer station regularly also have said it was not uncommon in the past to find the trash compactor running unattended, the access gates left open.

So when I reached the mayor Tuesday, after his transfer station reopening announcement was posted, I expected him to be able to report what changes in equipment or protocol have been made to make it safe.

Incredibly, the mayor said he didn't know.

He said he only knows that state investigators and the city's public works department have decided it is OK to reopen.

Wasn't he even a little curious, I asked, to know what has changed in almost two weeks, since a city resident was killed after falling in the machine, to make the area safe?

Apparently not.

Finizio told me two investigations are underway, one by the agency that provides municipal liability insurance coverage, and another by the state Labor Department, which investigates accidents at municipal work sites.

A third investigation, by the city's police department, has concluded there was no foul play in Smeeton's death, the mayor said.

But what about criminal negligence, which can be defined as allowing avoidable dangers to manifest?

The mayor emphasized that he awaits the outcome of the outside investigations and said he has ordered everyone who works for the city to cooperate with them.

But he said he knows of no investigations by the city itself to find out what went wrong.

It is remarkable to me to think that someone dies on your watch and you don't make any effort to independently get to the bottom of what happened and find out if someone who works for the city might bear some responsibility, whether changes need to be made.

Even though the Labor Department is investigating, a probe that could take up to a month, according to a department spokesman, there is certainly nothing to prevent the mayor from asking his own questions.

I know he's busy. But this is important. Lawsuits are certainly coming.

I also spoke Wednesday to the director of the agency that insures New London and other Connecticut municipalities. He said they are indeed reviewing the accident the way any insurance company would look into a claim, but he said they are certainly not planning to make conclusions or recommendations about the way the transfer station is run.

That's the mayor's responsibility - one he seems to be ducking.

I thought Public Works Director Tim Hanser would know what happened to cause Floyd Smeeton's death, but he said he, too, is awaiting the results of the state investigation.

He said he doesn't know whether anyone was in the compactor control room when Smeeton died, or whether protocol calls for someone to be manning the controls.

More incredible, he said he is not sure if anyone will be at the controls today when the station reopens. He said he has been busy the last few days and the transfer station supervisor has been handling those details.

The only changes he knows of, Hanser said, is that Jersey barriers have been erected so that station employees, not the public, will load the compactor.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the public works director, like the mayor, doesn't know what happened to Floyd Smeeton and has not made any effort to find out.

This is the person responsible for a simple heating system leak that has remarkably filled City Hall with steam for the winter.

This is the opinion of David Collins

Town News

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