Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Deaths of 2 well cleaners put focus on perils of job


In Charles County, Gregory J. Keys and George L. Montgomery were known as the men to call to clean and repair wells.

The partners, who had learned a trade handed down from generation to generation and never advertised their service, went out on what was expected to be a routine job Saturday. But they drowned after becoming trapped in a narrow well, which was 40 feet deep but only 31 inches wide.

The tragedy has highlighted the dangers of an occupation as old as chimney sweeping.

Cleaning wells is not licensed by the state. Even though experts say it's critical to test the levels of oxygen and toxins in wells, free-lance well cleaners often don't have the necessary equipment.

"From preliminary information, it was obviously a case of somebody entering a confined space without taking the proper precautions and without knowing whether there was adequate oxygen," said Craig Lowry, chief of compliance for the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health.

The agency has begun an inquiry but most likely has no jurisdiction because the men were self-employed, he said.

Mr. Montgomery, 49, of Nanjemoy, complained of light-headedness after being lowered into the residential well near LaPlata shortly before noon, said Sgt. Dwight Miller, a spokesman for the Charles County Sheriff's Office.

Mr. Keys, a 40-year-old from Indian Head whose family had cleaned wells for years, went to rescue his partner after failing to raise him to the surface by cranking a cable.

Both men then managed to climb onto a chair suspended by the cable. But as Mr. Keys' son, Gregory Jr., 18, began to lift them to safety, the line snapped.

Rescue teams tried for several hours to reach the men, who slid to the bottom of the well containing 20 feet of water. Disoriented from the shortage of oxygen, both men had trouble following rescue workers' instructions.

Charles County firefighters called experts from Prince George's County after two hours of rescue attempts failed. The Confined Space Rescue Team is based in Laurel and took 40 minutes to arrive at the well.

"It was like doing it with your eyes closed," said Tom Schubert, a Prince George's firefighter who was lowered in a harness into the well. "Everything was done by feel."

Mr. Schubert said yesterday that the two victims did not have the necessary equipment, including a breathing apparatus and a monitoring device that would have showed the poor air quality in the well.

Rescue and fire personnel took tests that showed the air contained only 17 percent oxygen. Twenty-one percent is needed for a person to remain conscious.

Janice Keys said her husband loved climbing into wells. He frequently repaired them to supplement the income from his job on a Charles County road crew.

"It was a trade in the family, and he just kept it going," she said.

Mrs. Keys said her husband of 20 years was a quiet man who enjoyed fishing and spending time with his children -- Saundra, 19, Gregory, 18, Gregnear,9, and Shawnell,8.

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