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Federal investigators reviewing electrical contractor's death on aircraft carrier

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Pacific Ocean on May 4, 2018.

ALEX CORONA/U.S. NAVY

By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 2, 2019

Federal investigators are looking into the death of a civilian contractor onboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier last September as it underwent maintenance at Naval Air Station North Island.

Gerald Laner, an electrician, was working on an aircraft elevator aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt when he collapsed. Military personnel quickly responded and tried to revive him, but Laner died.

He was 80 years old.

The Navy’s investigation and the medical examiner’s report raise questions about what caused his death, and his son is asking for an investigation.

The Navy says he suffered a heart attack. The San Diego County Medical Examiner was unable to determine a cause of death; an autopsy found Laner had heart disease, but it also found electrical burns on his chest and arms.

Laner’s son, Jeff Williams, said he is convinced his father was injured on the job.

“The man worked himself to death,” Williams said, adding that his father had a 10-year Navy career, which included service in Vietnam, and 20 more in the Army Reserve before working for military contracts. Altogether, Williams said, Laner had 60 years experience as an electrician. “(He) worked his whole career defending this country.”

According to the Navy’s investigation, Laner began work on the Roosevelt in July. A master tradesman employed by Huntington Ingalls Industries for 11 years, Laner was working near a cable container, ripping out cable boxes. A few minutes later a coworker found him lying motionless.

He tried to arouse him.Three nearby sailors called for emergency medical treatment and began CPR.

Ship’s medical personnel soon arrived, followed by paramedics from the base fire department. Laner was transported to UCSD Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

According to the Navy’s investigation, the ship’s safety officer directed the leading chief petty officer of the electrical division to “check all the electrical circuits in the vicinity..to ensure that (Laner’s) cardiac arrest was not caused by an electric shock.”

The Navy says a communication circuit, power circuit, dead-end cables and temporary power outlets were all inspected and found de-energized. A petty officer from the engineering department found that “all equipment Mr. Laner was scheduled to be working on had been properly tagged out,” meaning they were turned off and the associated power switches were marked with tags, so no one would switch them on.

The ship’s doctor who lead the medical team that day said in an after-action report that Laner showed “no indications of external injuries and ... his death was caused by age and/or prior medical history.”

The investigation concluded that because all the equipment was tagged out and de-energized, “Mr. Laner suffered a heart attack that happened to occur at work, but which likely would have happened regardless of where he was that day.”

The commanding officer of the Roosevelt, Capt. Carlos Sardiello, agreed with the findings of the investigation.

The County Medical Examiner’s Department was not so sure. An autopsy performed two days later said Laner was possibly electrocuted.

The deputy medical examiner conducting the procedure found multiple lesions “consistent with … with electrical burns” on both sides of Laner’s chest, as well as on the inside of his left arm.

The report also noted evidence of the emergency medical treatment Laner received, including defibrillator treatments, but said they were not listed as the source of the electrical burns.

The medical examiner also found evidence of “potentially lethal natural disease including severe narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart,” as well as evidence of prior heart attacks and enlargement of the heart.

Laner’s cause of death is officially “undetermined.”

A spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls Industries, Beci Brenton, confirmed Laner worked for the company for 11 years, but did not comment on the nature of his death.

“Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this time of loss,” she said.

Cmdr. Ronald Flanders, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces, said the Navy’s investigation was conclusive.

“No factors related to the ship could have contributed to his passing,” he said.

The sailors who responded to Laner’s collapse were recommended for Navy Achievement Medals.

Williams said he reported the discrepancies between the investigation and the autopsy to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. A spokesman for the Department of Labor confirmed that an investigation is ongoing.

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