KC water employee died when plug gave way in sewage pipe

A Kansas City water department employee died Monday night after a temporary plug in the sewer line he was working on gave way and the manhole filled with sewage, city officials said Tuesday.

The accident occurred about 5:20 p.m. behind the South Patrol Division police station at 9701 Marion Drive. Police and city water services officials gave this account:

Donald Fenton, 40, was working alone, repairing a valve on a 15-inch-diameter sewer pipe.

His co-workers heard what sounded like an explosion but actually was the sound of a rubber plug popping out of the sewer line being repaired, Water Services Department spokeswoman Jennifer Kincaid said. When they got to the manhole, the workers saw that sewage had filled the cavity where Fenton had been.

The co-workers jumped in to try to find him but could not. They used a backhoe to break the bottom of the main line to release the sewage. They tied a rope around Fenton’s body and pulled him from the manhole.

Fenton, a 14-year veteran of the water department, suffered traumatic injuries to his face and neck, possibly from being hit by the plug, Kincaid said. An ambulance crew pronounced him dead at the scene.

Mayor Sly James said Fenton recently had gained custody of his two teenage children. He asked for prayers for the children and their small family “that just got smaller.”

James said the accident served as a reminder that many city employees have dangerous and difficult jobs.

“Today of all days is a time to remember that daily, lives are put on the line to make our city great,” James said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the Water Services Department called Fenton “an exceptional employee” who was dedicated to his work.

“Donald will be deeply missed and fondly remembered,” said Terry Leeds, director of water services. “His family, friends and co-workers are in our thoughts as we work through this time of grief.”

Co-workers created a small memorial at the accident site with Fenton’s work boots. In Fenton’s honor, the city will fly flags at half-staff this week.

Although police conducted a preliminary investigation, water department employees will determine what caused the accident and whether there are lessons that can be learned, said Danny Rotert, the city’s main spokesman.

A spokesman for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the agency has no jurisdiction since the accident involved a city employee.