Parents sue Iraq contractor in soldier's electrocution

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When insurgents targeted voters near an Iraqi polling place in December 2005, Staff Sgt. Ryan Douglas Maseth, 24, aimed his weapon and ran headlong into the attackers, risking his life to protect Iraqi voters.

On Jan. 2 of this year, Sgt. Maseth, of Shaler, stepped into the shower at his quarters in Baghdad's safe Green Zone and was electrocuted.

"Ryan was highly trained," his mother, Cheryl A. Harris, said yesterday. "He was a Ranger. He was a Green Beret. He was a weapons master. He was in the military for six years, so I can understand the risks.

"I can't get my mind around something as senseless as stepping into a shower and being electrocuted."

According to the Army Criminal Investigation Division, Sgt. Maseth died when the electricity in the shower facility short-circuited because an electric water pump on the rooftop was not properly grounded.

Ms. Harris' grief, and her frustration, have been compounded by her difficulty in getting answers to what happened. A lot of what she was told by military authorities was sketchy, and some of it was wrong. Few people could explain what happened and no one would take responsibility.

Yesterday, in a quest for someone to be held accountable, Sgt. Maseth's parents sued KBR Inc., the multibillion-dollar contractor hired to maintain and repair the electrical infrastructure at the Radwaniyah Palace complex in Baghdad, a former estate of Saddam Hussein, where Sgt. Maseth was killed.

Attorney Patrick K. Cavanaugh said the military and the contractor had known about the electrical problem since February 2007, yet it went uncorrected.

"The Defense Contract Management Agency, we believe, authorized [the contractor] to the tune of millions of dollars to make the repairs. And they never made the repairs," Mr. Cavanaugh said. "And we don't know why. A simple repair -- just ground the building -- and Ryan would be alive today."

Also yesterday, prompted by a request from U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform launched an investigation into the accidental electrocution deaths of at least 12 service members in Iraq since 2003, including Sgt. Maseth.

After his staff conducted interviews with Ms. Harris, Mr. Altmire wrote the Army's legislative liaison requesting an autopsy report and calling for officials to respond to the family's questions. His office also contacted the Oversight Committee, which has investigated charges of fraud and misconduct at Blackwater and among other military contractors in Iraq.

The congressman also wrote Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates requesting an investigation.

"[Ms. Harris] should have gotten answers from the first day," Mr. Altmire said. "And then when we started to investigate and we started running into the same brick walls that she had been running into, it does infuriate me.

"I hope that with the committee investigation we are able to get to the bottom of why there's been this cover-up. But, more importantly, to hold accountable the people who are responsible for not addressing the issue that was known three years ago."

Chris Isleib, a spokesman for the secretary of defense, said yesterday when contacted about Sgt. Maseth's death: "The Defense Department considers this matter to be serious, and we have referred it to the [Department of Defense Inspector General] for a full investigation." He declined to comment on specifics of the case or other accidental electrocution deaths the military has reported.

The wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Sgt. Maseth's parents yesterday takes aim at the contractor, Kellogg Brown & Root Services Inc., now called KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary based in Houston.

The lawsuit alleges that KBR knew the electrical supply to the building's water tank bypassed the main disconnect, two unprotected splices were linked to the supply line, and the water tanks were not grounded. In addition, it says, "KBR was aware that the water pump servicing the facility was manufactured by a Chinese company for sale to countries outside the United States because it failed to meet applicable U.S. safety standards."

The Defense Department's agency instructed KBR to fix the problem, according to the lawsuit. The family is seeking damages stemming from the company's alleged negligence in failing to warn soldiers or repair the system.

Mr. Cavanaugh said Sgt. Maseth's parents filed the lawsuit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court yesterday because they have two other sons in the military, and they hoped to prevent future accidents that could easily be avoided.

Sgt. Brandon Maseth, Ryan's twin brother, is an Army Ranger still serving in Iraq and considering re-enlisting. A younger brother, Adam, 21, is a sergeant here in the United States.

The young men come from a military family. Their father, Doug, who lives in Shaler, is a former Marine, and their grandfather was in the Army.

"It's just something they wanted to do. It's their way of life. They love it," said Ms. Harris, 49, a telecommunications worker who has remarried and lives in Cranberry. "I could see both of them making a career out of it."

Ms. Harris said she is proud of her sons' service and supportive of their mission in Iraq. But that doesn't mean she will accept what happened as "just an accident."

"How could I not pursue this?" she asked.

"This was not my intent, to file a lawsuit. But I thought, after Ryan's death, I'd get answers. And I never did. I don't see any other options. And our troops are still at risk. They're protecting us. What are we doing for them?"

"It's really about accountability and prevention. It would have been easy for KBR to prevent it. They knew about the problem and grounding a building is not a complicated matter," Mr. Cavanaugh said.

KBR, an Army contractor since at least 2003, did not deny that it knew of the electrical problems.

Heather L. Browne, communications director for the company, said yesterday, "The safety and security of all employees remains KBR's priority, and we remain committed to pledging our full cooperation with the agencies involved in investigating this matter.

"At the time of Staff Sgt. Maseth's tragic death, however, KBR was providing repair services at the facility in response to requests issued by the Army."

After he made inquiries about the death of Sgt. Maseth, Mr. Altmire confirmed in February that two Marine fatalities and 10 Army fatalities were caused by accidental electrocution.

Five of those Army soldiers died in the first months of 2004, according to an October 2004 Army safety publication, which warned that improper grounding of electrical wires was "a factor in nearly every electrocution" and "a serious threat" for soldiers based in Iraq.


Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456. Gabrielle Banks can be reached at gbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.


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