How could someone so full of life suffer such a terrible death? Friends of the late Dave Grant are wondering. Ted Kostich, for instance, is a developer who recalls the time Grant whipped off his own blaze orange cap and handed it to Kostich when the sound of hunters’ gunfire crackled through a construction site.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” says Kostich. “He really cared about life and people.”
Even before the accident that claimed Grant’s life, the site, a former pine farm, was a “sort of heinous place,” according to colleague and eyewitness Dave Berzonski. Covered in rocky soil and thorns, the Buckingham County tract lies off Route 720, several miles south of the James River.
Berzonski says he and Grant arrived on the morning of Tuesday, March 5, between 9:30 and 9:45. The two men were working as Baseline Consulting, so-named for Grant’s musical passion: the upright bass.
The two men had met years earlier as DJs at local station WTJU, and Berzonski calls Grant “a keystone in the whole folk hybrid music scene.”
Berzonski thinks Grant announced their presence to the backhoe operator, who was busily digging pits for a subdivision called Forest Ridge. A bulldozer operator, meanwhile, was filling up already-analyzed pits.
Like the better known percolation tests, “deep observation pits,” as they’re called in the trade, are part of the standard procedure for new subdivisions. Testers dig a hole about six feet deep to examine soil layers to see if septic systems will work on the site.
Ironically, Berzonski says, Grant’s firm had probably recommended Scott’s Backhoe, a Palmyra-based business, for the job– although he says it was unusual for the heavy machinery to be operating simultaneously with the geologists.
Since the third member of that day’s Baseline team, Vaughan Mairs, who was bringing the tape measure, was delayed by a doctor’s appointment, Grant reached for a 6-foot-long hand auger to make sure the pit he was entering was deep enough.
Berzonski paused to talk to Grant inside the pit. It wasn’t more than three minutes later, Berzonski says, that Grant was accidentally covered with soil by the bulldozer. The top of the 6-foot auger ominously stuck out from the soil.
Within minutes, Mairs arrived and met the bulldozer operator racing up the road in Grant’s car.
“Dave’s buried in a pit, and I’ve got to get a shovel,” Mairs says the bulldozer operator shouted. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and he said, ‘No, I’m not kidding.’”
Mairs raced with a pick-axe to find the backhoe operator and Berzonski frantically digging, both by hand and machine, to uncover Grant. As soon as they got Grant uncovered, Berzonski and the backhoe operator began administering CPR– to no avail.
“By the time they got him uncovered,” says Mairs, “he was buried for around five minutes. That’s all it took.”
A woman who answered the phone at Scott’s Backhoe on Monday said there’d be no comment and declined to assist a reporter in reaching either of the two machinery operators present at the accident.
Danny Williams is the state trooper assigned to the case. After interviewing the parties and consulting with the Commonwealth’s Attorney, he declined to press any charges against the bulldozer operator.
“He didn’t know the man was in there,” says Williams. “We’ve ruled it an accidental death. It just boils down to lack of communication between the two teams.”
While the state police have wrapped up their investigation, the Department of Labor and Industry, the state branch of OSHA, has just begun investigating.
“We didn’t know anything about it in our central office until today,” said spokesperson Jeannette Coleman on Friday, March 8, three days after the accident. If the conduct that led to the accident demonstrates “plain indifference” to a safety standard, the state could levy a penalty up to $70,000 and six months imprisonment. The investigation, Coleman says, could take up to 180 days.