South Huntingdon trench collapse: Teen remembered as 'sweet boy' who was 'much loved by a lot of people'
A Smithton teenager who died in a trench collapse earlier this week was remembered Friday as a young man who took video gaming about as seriously as his Christian faith.
Adam J. Skokut Jr., 18, died Wednesday when the walls of a 10-foot-deep trench collapsed on him as he and his father worked to install a septic system at a South Huntingdon property owned by Adam Skokut Sr. It took first responders about three hours to shore up the trench walls and remove the teen's body.
Skokut's mother, Tammy Rhoades Skokut, said Friday that her son was studying to become a master plumber so he could stay involved with the family business, A-Affordable Sanitation. He was attending Allegheny County Plumbing School.
“He worked a lot with his dad. That was big for him,” said his aunt, Terri Evans of Belle Vernon.
Tammy Skokut said Adam enjoyed playing video games, swimming, singing, going to church and hanging out with friends from church and school. He attended Bible Alliance Church in West Newton, where friends were received Friday, and, more recently, Word of Life Church in Greensburg.
“He liked to sing, especially older hymns like ‘Victory in Jesus,' ” his mother said, noting that Adam sang as a soloist and in choirs.
At Yough Senior High School, he was involved with the robotics club. He graduated in 2016.
“He was such a sweet boy. He was much loved by a lot of people,” Evans said.
State police determined the trench collapse was an accident.
“No criminal investigation is being conducted at this time,” Trooper Stefani Lucas said Thursday.
Investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration continue to look into the circumstances surrounding the incident and expect to issue a report in about 60 days.
Local firefighters said Skokut Jr. was in the 30-inch-wide trench at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when it began to fill with water and a wall of wet, clay-based soil trapped him inside.
Civil engineering expert J. David Gardner said that type of soil is typical to Western Pennsylvania, which can make trenches more prone to collapsing. Gardner works for Robson Forensic, a forensic engineering firm with offices in Pittsburgh as well as across Pennsylvania and the country.
“When you are digging for a trench to install a utility pipe, for a deck, whatever it is, the overall stability of the trench depends upon the soil you're digging in,” Gardner said.
OSHA requires trenches deeper than 5 feet to use a protective system unless the excavation site is entirely in stable rock. Shields provide stability to vertical walls and are designed differently based on the type of soil and depth, Gardner said.
Fire officials indicated that a protective system was not used at the South Huntingdon trench. Another option is to create sloped sides for a trench deeper than 5 feet.
“When you dig the earth, that earth has been together for millions of years,” Gardner said. “Its support has been removed.”
Trench collapses can happen quickly and have deadly consequences, Gardner said.
“When a trench collapses, it collapses without warning,” he said.
Skokut Sr. operates A-Affordable Sanitation Inc., which is based near the scene of the trench collapse along Fitz Henry Road. The company does sewer, septic and drain work, according to its website. An OSHA database shows no prior citations for the company.
Wall collapse is the primary cause of fatalities and injuries in trenches, according to OSHA. Between 2011 and 2015, 94 people died in the United States from an excavation or trench cave-in, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2016, 23 U.S. workers died and 12 were injured in collapses.
The county's Trench Rescue and Structural Collapse Team, composed of members of five area fire departments, used thick wooden panels to stabilize the walls of the South Huntingdon trench to allow for a safe recovery, said Bill Watkins, a team coordinator and Crabtree fire chief.
The team doesn't get calls very often, and Watkins estimated that it's been about five years since the last time team members responded to an emergency.
“It's a specialized type of a rescue that requires specialized training that the average firefighter and EMS person does not have,” he said.
The team formed in the 1980s and has responded to emergencies in Westmoreland and neighboring counties. A couple of members helped during the 2002 rescue of nine miners in Quecreek, Somerset County.
Services for Skokut Jr. will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday in Bible Alliance Church, 1000 Mt. Pleasant Road, West Newton, with the Rev. Frank Todaro presiding. Private interment will follow in Olive Branch Cemetery in South Huntingdon.
Richard F. Dodson Memorial Home in West Newton is in charge of arrangements.