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Firm is fined over 3 fatalities

The state says Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites must pay $25,870 for deaths at its Mojave facility.

January 19, 2008|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Scaled Composites, the fledgling space tourism company founded by rocket pioneer Burt Rutan, was fined $25,870 on Friday as a result of an accident last July that killed three workers at the firm's Mojave, Calif., testing facility.

The fine covered five violations of workplace safety codes, including a failure to maintain a safe working environment and to properly train workers handling hazardous materials, according to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The three workers -- Eric Dean Blackwell, 38; Charles Glen May, 45; and Todd Ivens, 33 -- were killed in an explosion at a remote testing site at the Mojave Air and Space Port on July 26.

Three other employees were injured in the blast, which occurred when a tank of nitrous oxide ignited during a test of the spacecraft's propellant system.

The company issued a brief statement Friday afternoon in response to the state findings. "Scaled Composites regrets that this accident occurred, and we have expressed our condolences to the victims and their families and provided support during this difficult time," said the statement, released by Executive Vice President Doug Shane.

"We cooperated fully with Cal/OSHA during the investigation, and we continue to work with the agency so that the enhanced procedures already implemented promote the safest workplace conditions possible."

Shane declined to add anything to the statement or say whether the company would appeal the findings.

In 2004, the firm became the first private company to launch a reusable manned rocket into space. That craft was SpaceShipOne. At the time of the accident, Rutan's company was working on a component for SpaceShipTwo, the six-passenger commercial model.

Rutan said it was the first injury during a test in the company's 25-year history. Shortly after the accident, the firm established the Scaled Family Support Fund to channel donations to the families of the injured and dead.

Of the five violations cited, two were listed as serious, meaning that they carried a substantial risk of death or serious injury. One citation, imposing an $18,000 fine, charged that the company failed to correct unsafe conditions or workplace practices associated with the handling of nitrous oxide.

A second accused the firm of failing to inform workers about and train them in the safe use of hazardous materials, specifically nitrous oxide.

All five violations have been corrected, according to Kate McGuire, a spokeswoman for the worker safety office.

McGuire said her office does not determine criminal negligence. That will be up to Kern County Dist. Atty. Edward R. Jagels, she said.

Steve Katz, supervisor of the district attorney's white collar crime section, said he hadn't seen the results of the state inquiry. After reviewing it, prosecutors could file criminal, civil or no charges, he said.

The accident prompted a review of safety procedures at the airport, where a number of space entrepreneurs are testing and building a new generation of economical rocket systems. Airport General Manager Stuart Witt said he had just received the results of the state investigation and could not comment on whether it would result in tighter controls on the space companies.

The announcement of the violations and fines occurred as Rutan is scheduled to publicly unveil scale models of SpaceShipTwo and its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, at a New York news conference next week.

Also attending will be Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic firm has purchased several of Rutan's vehicles to carry tourists to the edge of space.


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