By John Ellis / The Fresno Bee
FRESNO, CA — Martin Alvarado was doing a routine inspection at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant near Los Banos in February 2007 when swift-moving water swept him and a fellow diver against an underwater grate.
Trapped by the force of the water and unable to pry themselves away, Alvarado and Tim Crawford drowned.
Now, Alvarado’s wife is suing the federal government. She says commercial diving standards weren’t followed and other safety standards were ignored. She wants compensation for herself and her four children.
The youngest was not yet 4 when the drownings occurred, said Sara Alvarado’s attorney, Stephen Cornwell. Now the children range in age from 5 to mid-teens.
In the lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Fresno, Sara Alvarado accuses the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation of failing to comply with safe diving standards. The bureau did not ensure that the two divers had proper diving equipment, and did not adequately inspect conditions at the pumping plant, according to the suit.
“Talk about a pile of incompetence,” Cornwell said. “It was one thing after another.”
Bureau spokeswoman Lynnette Wirth said the agency doesn’t comment on litigation.
Accounts of what happened that day vary, but according to a California Highway Patrol investigator, Alvarado, 44, of Coalinga and Crawford, 56, of Seaside entered the water about 10 a.m. Feb. 7, 2007, for what was supposed to be a 30-minute dive. They were inspecting two of the six pump-intake pipes under about 30 feet of water. Visibility was 2 to 3 feet.
A California Department of Water Resources spokesman said that the dive was supposed to last 20 minutes.
A safety officer with that department who had been standing on a platform above the aqueduct noticed that by 10:35 a.m., neither diver had surfaced, a California Highway Patrol official said at the time.
Witnesses later told the CHP that plant employees delayed calling 911 for about an hour as they contemplated whether the divers were in trouble.
Ultimately, an onsite rescue diver jumped in and found the two. They were unresponsive. Each diver was carrying a single tank of oxygen.
One diver was pulled from the water at 12:42 p.m., the other at 12:50 p.m.
A CHP report found that no employee working at the plant that morning — other than the two divers — was trained in diving techniques or procedures, making it nearly impossible for them to know how to respond.
According to the lawsuit, one of the pumps was running at capacity, and built-up trash partially blocked the intake.
Because of that, the water was moving faster than usual as it was drawn into the pump.
“Both divers were sucked onto the grate with such force that they were unable to extricate themselves and drowned,” the lawsuit states.
Cornwell said commercial diving standards require divers to be tethered, have a remote air supply and communications with the surface.
None of that was the case with Alvarado, he said.
The federal lawsuit was filed because the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, Cornwell said.
That agency has turned the plant’s operation over to the state Department of Water Resources, but it still bears some liability, because it is responsible for making sure safe practices are followed there, he said.
Claims filed by Alvarado against California were resolved under the state’s workers’ compensation laws, he said.