Contractor blamed in soldier's death

Shaler Ranger and Green Beret was electrocuted in Iraq


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More than 19 months since her son, Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, was electrocuted in the shower while serving with the Special Operations Task Force in Baghdad, Cheryl Harris finally has some sense of justice.

Yesterday, the inspector general of the Department of Defense issued a report proclaiming that the contractor tasked with performing facility maintenance at the Radwaniyah Palace in Baghdad, along with military leaders there, failed to properly perform its duties to ensure safety for servicemen and women stationed there and throughout Iraq.

"The results are revealing and contrary to what KBR and its president have continually stated over the last year," Ms. Harris said. "The report says that KBR installed the water pump that killed my son -- a point KBR has flatly denied for the past year."

She has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against KBR Inc. in U.S. District Court, claiming that the military contractor tasked with providing facility maintenance and repairs at the former estate of Saddam Hussein is responsible for her son's electrocution.

The case is currently on hold while KBR appeals a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Nora Barry Fischer denying the company's motion to dismiss.

Following a great deal of congressional interest in Sgt. Maseth's death, the inspector general's office was tasked with reviewing it, along with 17 others.

Shaler native Sgt. Maseth, an Army Ranger and Green Beret, was electrocuted while in the shower on Jan. 2, 2008.

His mother contends that KBR failed to properly ground an electric water pump on the building's rooftop. Sgt. Maseth was killed when it short-circuited.

In the summary of the report, the inspector general concluded that "multiple systems and organizations failed, leaving Staff Sgt. Maseth exposed to unacceptable risk."

The report addresses KBR specifically, finding that the company installed the water pump in question in early June 2006. The company did not properly ground the equipment during its installation or report improperly grounded equipment during routine maintenance, the report said.

It notes that the Defense Contract Management Agency found more than 230 incidents of reported electric shocks in KBR-maintained facilities across Iraq from September 2006 through July 2008.

In addition, the inspector general found that KBR personnel at Radwaniyah had inadequate electrical training and expertise, and that facility maintenance records were incomplete and lacked specificity, precluding the identification and correction of systemic problems.

Other problems noted were a lack of standard operation procedures for the technical inspection of facilities and a failure to bring inconsistent contract specifications to the attention of the administrative contracting officer.

KBR, which has continually denied any responsibility for Sgt. Maseth's death, had not seen the inspector general's report and would not comment on it. However, Heather L. Browne, a spokeswoman, issued a statement saying that KBR informed the military that there was no grounding in the structure nine months before Sgt. Maseth was killed.

"Prior to that incident, the military never directed KBR to repair, upgrade or improve the grounding system in the building in which Maseth resided, nor was KBR directed to perform any preventative maintenance at this facility," she said.

In its report, the inspector general identified a total of 18 electrocution deaths in Iraq, spanning from April 2004 to November 2008.

Nine of those, the report concluded, were people killed accidentally by touching or coming into contact with live power lines.

The other nine were the result of either faulty equipment or improper grounding.

As of June 30, the report said, five of those nine deaths were still under investigation.

As part of its investigation into Sgt. Maseth's death, the inspector general collected more than 22,500 pages of documents, interviewed 60 people and did field work in Iraq last fall.

Among those outspoken on Sgt. Maseth's death has been U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

"There's still work to be done regarding a full measure of accountability by KBR," Mr. Casey said. "There has to be a definitive sanction of some kind."

The senator could not expand on what that penalty might be, but he did note that there is an ongoing investigation into Sgt. Maseth's death by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command.

"There's a heightened level of gravity to that," he said. "That may be the report that has teeth -- potential penalties or sanctions."

In the meantime, the inspector general's report spells out a list of recommendations to prevent future fatalities. Those suggestions include increasing communication among commanders, base camp mayors and contractors regarding similar problems, as well as establishing facility maintenance standards for extended occupation of non-U.S.-built structures.

It also notes progress that has already been made in Iraq.

Trade workers employed by military contractors must now meet minimum professional competency requirements, and safety inspections of more than 75,000 structures in Iraq are expected to be completed by KBR in September.

"KBR wasn't the only player in this tragedy that bears responsibility," Mr. Casey said. "We have to ensure the U.S. government is working to make sure this doesn't happen again.

"There's plenty of work to be done."


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published July 28, 2009 4:00 AM


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