By ROGER SNODGRASS, Los Alamos Monitor Editor
A tragic chapter for the community and particularly for Efren Martinez of Cordova, N.M. and his family came to a close this week. Martinez died Tuesday after 13 ½ years in a coma caused by a traumatic electrical accident while working for a construction contractor at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Martinez’ brother-in-law Richard Pacheco, speaking for family, said, “This brings closure to the family. We did not want him to be forgotten.”
The accident occurred on Jan. 17, 1996. The father of two sons, he was 35 years old at the time, when a jackhammer he was using struck a 13,200 volt power line. According to Monitor reports from that time, Martinez was working in a basement at the former Plutonium Processing Facility on DP Road. He suffered massive electrical shock and went into cardiac arrest. He was treated by employees and emergency technicians who rushed to the site and was then taken to the intensive care unit at Los Alamos Medical Center. His heart was restarted, but he never woke up again.
During the years that followed, his case became symbolic of inadequate safety practices at Los Alamos. According to the Monitor summary, construction projects were halted for a lengthy period of time while reviews were conducted.
Subsequent laboratory statements acknowledged that Martinez was working on a job that had not been properly analyzed for health and safety hazards or adequately managed for the level of risk involved. Still later, Department of Energy occurrence reports surfaced detailing a series of mistakes that contributed to the injury.
“It was an accident waiting to happen,” Pacheco said, “It happened to be him.”
On June 23, 1998, the laboratory announced an “out-of-court” settlement had been reached in the case, that included a $13 million payment to the family, negotiated by celebrity trial lawyer Gary Spence.
“It was so many years ago, said Pacheco. “A lot of people lose track.”
The older son, Marcos is now 21 and Antonio is 17.
“The kids grew up without a father,” Pacheco said. “It’s been hard for them to see their father like that. They’re okay with it now. He died surrounded by friends and family till he took his last breath.”
During Martinez’ years in an unconscious state, he was cared for at the Sombrillo Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Los Alamos.
“The family wants to thank the nurses and the staff at Sombrillo for their outstanding care during the saddest and lowest times for them,” he said. “We also want to thank friends, coworkers and all the trade union members who helped the family when this accident struck.”
[Download the 176 page Type A Accident Investigation Board Report here.]