Hidden Danger: Soldiers Dying From Electrocution

A dozen soldiers in Iraq have died in short-circuit accidents, says congressman


March 20, 2008 — -- During his two tours of duty serving as a special forces soldier in Iraq, Ryan D. Maseth had cheated death on more than a few occasions.

While protecting a Baghdad polling place in December 2005, he ran toward enemy fire to help his fellow soldiers and to repel the attack. And after a Humvee in his convoy once hit an improvised explosive device, Maseth escaped injury and apprehended the perpetrators.

But little did the staff sergeant know that when he stepped into the shower at his military base in Baghdad two months ago, he was putting his life at risk.

Maseth, 24, of Shaler, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, was electrocuted on Jan. 2 when an improperly grounded electric water pump short-circuited and flowed through the pipes. Since the coiled hose was touching his arm, he was hit with an electrical jolt and went into cardiac arrest and died.

Maseth's tragic death brings to 12 the number of soldiers who have died in Iraq due to accidental electrocution, according to Army and Marine e-mails obtained by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

By comparison, there were 250 occupational fatalities due to electrocution among all workers in the United States in 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now Maseth's family and some members of Congress are demanding answers to their questions about why these tragic fatalities continue to occur despite the Pentagon's knowledge of the risks of electrocution since 2004.

"I have three sons in the military," Maseth's mother, Cheryl A. Harris, told ABCNews.com. "Ryan's twin brother Brandon is on his third tour of duty right now. I understand the risks full well, but I struggle with getting my mind around how Ryan died, something so simple as getting into a shower."

A Pentagon spokesman said that the matter has been turned over to the department's inspector general for a full investigation.

Meanwhile, Harris and Maseth's father Douglas Maseth have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a Pennsylvania state court against Kellogg Brown Root, the contractor hired to maintain and repair the electrical infrastructure at the Radwaniyah Palace complex in Baghdad, one of Saddam Hussein's former estates, where her son lived.

She claims that KBR had been aware of the problems with the electrical system at the complex since February 2007, citing reports from the contractor and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division she was shown during meetings with Army personnel.

"They were well aware of those conditions but I want to know: Who was accountable? Who made the decision to allow Ryan to live there?"

Harris maintains that the problem has still not been fixed and that she was told that two more soldiers received non-fatal electrical shocks in the two months since her son's death.

"I was told that they are working on it but they have still not made all the repairs."

A spokeswoman for KBR e-mailed a statement to ABC News:

"The safety and security of all employees remains KBR's priority and we remain committed to pledging our full cooperation with the agencies involved in investigating this matter."

At the time of Staff Sergeant's Maseth tragic death, however, KBR was providing repair services at the facility in response to requests issued by the Army."

After Harris contacted Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Penn., he wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking for answers.

He worked with Waxman, whose House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has launched an investigation into the deaths by accidental electrocution.

"It's an amazing story," Altmire says. "When you hear that in 2004, the Army themselves saw it as a problem and did nothing about it and in 2007 KBR [the contractor] identified it as a problem. We need to find out why nothing was done."

Altmire was referring to a 2004 Army safety publication article titled ""Electrocution: The Unexpected Killer," which warned that improper grounding of electrical wires was a "serious threat" for soldiers in Iraq.

The article was prompted by the deaths of five soldiers from accidental electrocution, including one that eerily foreshadowed Maseth's death:

Two weeks after one soldier was killed and another injured from an electrical current that charged a swimming pool in May 2004, the article says "another soldier was found dead, lying on a shower room floor with burn marks on his body. The apparent cause was electricity that traveled from the water heater through the metal pipes to the showerhead. Again, improper grounding of electrical systems is the probable cause of this soldier's death."