A Red Line subway construction worker died early Saturday when a suspended half-ton refuse bin broke free of its mooring and struck him in the head, causing the first fatality in the massive underground project.
The accident is the worst of numerous mishaps and safety lapses that have bedeviled the decade-old Red Line subway project. According to sources and documents obtained by The Times, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority project has experienced at least six other serious incidents in the last two months, including one Friday when a 400-pound cylinder fell on a worker in a Santa Monica Mountains tunnel.
In Saturday's incident, the worker was killed underground about 1:10 a.m. while working near a bin that was suspended by a pair of chains, said MTA spokesman Ed Scannell. One of the chains supporting the bin, called a "muck bucket," snapped and the apparatus swung free, hitting the man.
He was identified as Jaime Pasillas, 52, of Los Angeles. He was employed by Tutor-Saliba-Perini, one of the contractors hired by the MTA to build the Red Line through Hollywood.
Pasillas was part of a crew of nine workers in a section 70 feet under Hollywood Boulevard near Las Palmas Avenue. Scannell said the bucket, a rectangular bin measuring 5 feet long and 4 feet deep, is used to haul debris and tote tools and construction materials.
MTA board member John Fasaa called the accident "unacceptable and tragic."
"Our sympathies are with the miner's family and work crew," he said. "We need to find out what happened and make sure it cannot occur again."
The fatality was under investigation by several public agencies, including the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the MTA, police and the district attorney's office. Scannell said other details of the incident were not available because the investigation had just begun.
"At this point, it's under investigation what caused this chain to break," he said.
Investigators who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were focusing on the thickness of the chains that supported the bucket, which moved by motor along an overhead track. One side of the bucket was held up by a double strand of chain, but the broken length was a single, thinner strand, according to investigators. It was not known Saturday whether the broken strand met standards for thickness or wear.
Investigators said Pasillas had been loading the bin with wood used in pouring concrete when it broke free and crashed into his head.
Despite the fatality, Scannell said the safety record of the Red Line project compares favorably with subway projects elsewhere in the country.
"The safety record in the tunnel project is better than the national average," said Scannell. He said he did not have detailed safety statistics on hand Saturday.
But the tragedy, which hit two miles from the site of a giant subway-related sinkhole two years ago, is the latest in a recent string of safety lapses at a separate subway tunnel being dug through the Santa Monica Mountains by Indiana-based contractor Traylor Bros. / Frontier-Kemper, according to sources and documents obtained by The Times.
In other incidents since December:
* A Traylor Bros. worker was hospitalized Friday after he was struck in the head and shoulders by a 400-pound cylinder that fell off a digging machine.
* On Feb. 8, the driver of an underground rock-hauling train had to leap out of his moving locomotive after its brakes failed as it rolled backward down an incline, according to an MTA memorandum obtained by The Times. The train then sped back another 900 feet before slamming into a metal frame that trails the tunnel-boring machine. The locomotive driver was fired after a drug test revealed that he had recently smoked marijuana, according to two top construction officials.
* In mid-January, a Traylor Bros. crane operator accidentally dropped a load of rails 80 feet down an access shaft amid workers in Studio City, according to another top construction official who declined to be identified. No one was injured. The official said an investigation indicated that workers had improperly tied rails to the crane.
* From mid-December to late January, an electric elevator that hauls 30-ton muck cars up from the tunnel to dump trucks failed three times, sending a massive counterweight plummeting as much as 60 feet to the ground amid workers, according to investigators. No one was injured, but state safety officials and the contractor took the elevator out of service.
Those incidents prompted one construction official to express fears that workplace safety was falling prey to the push for speedy progress.
"We have some supervisors who are totally focused on production, rather than the bigger picture," the official said last week. "If we don't do something fast, someone is going to get seriously hurt or killed. This is driving us nuts."