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Inquest finds drowning of Shell refinery worker was accidental

Posted: 07/16/2009 01:20:20 PM PDT

MARTINEZ — Friends and family of an Antioch man and Shell Martinez Refinery employee who drowned in a water tower at the facility shed tears of relief Thursday after jurors at an inquest into the death determined it was accidental.

The verdict answered questions over whether 22-year Shell veteran William “Bill” Maddock could have committed suicide over severe back pain or stress April 29, the day his body was found in the open tank of a 30-foot tower wearing a backpack weighing about 30 pounds.

But Maddock, a 54-year-old father of two, had told several family members and his doctor that he had been wearing weights and climbing towers at the Shell facility for exercise, witnesses testified.

The guardrail on the water tower does not meet the standards set by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal-OSHA investigator Eric Berg testified. The agency requires such guardrails to measure between 42 and 45 inches in height; the Shell railing measured only 37 inches.

That could have easily provided a tripping factor for Maddock, who was 6 feet 5 inches tall, Berg said.

Maddock would have been unable to save himself once in water, regardless of the weighted backpack, which he had secured with duct tape at the shoulder straps, according to testimony. The water line was 10 feet below the top of the tower.

The tower did not have a safety ladder inside the tank, another violation of Cal-OSHA rules, Berg said. Cal-OSHA’s own investigation into Maddock’s death has not been completed, but could result in potential citations and penalties for the refinery, Berg said.

Several of Maddock’s former co-workers became emotional when they testified about the last time they had seen him alive before he went missing while working on the overnight shift.

He had been in a joking mood, which they said was common for Maddock, and showed off pictures of the wooden bed frame he expected to finish hand-crafting over the next two days.

No one could explain why Maddock, who was described as a good employee who was well-liked and always did things “by the book,” had a blood alcohol level that tested at .08, a number that would make driving in California illegal.

His widow, Rory Maddock, said it was out of character.

“He was a man of integrity,” Rory Maddock said. “If he was going to do (something), then he was going to do it at the best of his ability, whether it was rasing his sons or building a home.

“He was an honest man,” she told jurors. “I wish you knew him.”

The Contra Costa County coroner’s office routinely holds inquests surrounding deaths that occur in-custody or otherwise involve law enforcement. Although law enforcement was not involved in Maddock’s death, Sheriff Warren Rupf, who also serves as the county coroner, convened an inquest because of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the drowning and the fact that there were no witnesses.

Reach Malaika Fraley at [email protected].

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