One year after county employee Mario Sanchez died when his safety rope snapped at Pacoima Dam, Department of Public Works officials gathered Tuesday to give out the first safety award that they have established in Sanchez's name.
The irony of the event did not escape Sanchez's widow, Christine, who blames Los Angeles County for her 30-year-old husband's death.
Surrounded by family members, including her two young daughters, Sanchez helped present the award to power equipment operator Garry Toler, a 34-year veteran of the department who hasn't missed a single day on the job due to work injuries.
But if it wasn't for her desire to keep her husband's memory alive for 9-year-old Charlene and 3-year-old Melisa, Sanchez said she wouldn't have given her support to the idea of a memorial safety award at all.
"It is nothing. I only did it for the girls, so they can remember their dad," Sanchez said after the early morning ceremony at Hansen Yard in Sun Valley, where her husband worked. "I have so many harsh feelings against the county. If they had upgraded all the safety equipment, he would still be alive."
At the ceremony, Sanchez received a memorial plaque that she said she would put in the children's bedroom.
Meanwhile, Sanchez said she has filed suit against the maker of the rope that was used to support her husband, saying it should have held his weight.
And she said she wants to take the county to court in an effort to seek additional workers' compensation benefits, alleging that the department was willfully negligent in her husband's death.
Even though the county is negotiating an out-of-court settlement, Sanchez said she wants to go before a judge to raise the issues surrounding the accident.
"They're just trying to hush me up," Sanchez said. "I'd rather go to court and fight them all the way. . . . At least that way I can tell the girls, 'I fought for your dad.' "
Mario Sanchez, a Cuban immigrant and San Fernando flood control maintenance worker, died a year ago this week as he was working to clear brush from a sheer mountain face next to Pacoima Dam.
He slipped, then plunged 400 feet to his death when the safety line securing his 250-pound frame snagged on a rock and snapped.
State investigators later cited the department for violations in connection with Sanchez's death, alleging among other things that county officials failed to conduct a safety inspection the day of the accident, used ropes that were thinner than required and did not set up backup safety rigging.
Cal/OSHA, the state workplace safety agency, said none of the violations were "willful," meaning that the county did not intentionally permit dangerous working conditions.
The county's appeal of the citations is still under way. At Tuesday's memorial ceremony, Public Works Director Thomas Tidemanson outlined a host of safety improvements he said the department has put in place since Sanchez's death, including safety task forces, a complaint hot line and a study of the department's most hazardous operations.
Since Sanchez's death, his widow and family have been receiving $249 a week in workers' compensation benefits and will continue to do so until the younger daughter turns 18.
But Sanchez contends that she deserves a 50% boost in benefits due to county negligence.
Her lawyer, Dan Trammell, said Tuesday that "the county has indicated they will give her the maximum amount allowed by law" but that he has not yet received a formal offer.
Lawyers for the county said Tuesday that the issue remains in dispute, but a lump-sum award or an increase in weekly payments is being negotiated.
"I'm sure the attorneys will get together on something that is very fair for the family," said Roslyn Robson, deputy public works director. She said she was surprised that Sanchez wasn't totally supportive of the award being named after her husband.
"She told me this award was something she really wanted," Robson said, "that it would mean a lot to the girls and the family."