PITTSBURGH – A U.S. House committee chairman has begun an investigation into the accidental electrocutions of at least 12 service members in Iraq, including the January death of a Pennsylvania soldier killed by a jolt of electricity while showering.
Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to hand over all documents relating to the military's management of electrical systems at facilities in Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a 24-year-old soldier from Pittsburgh who was serving his second deployment in Iraq, died Jan. 2 of cardiac arrest after being electrocuted while showering at his barracks in Baghdad.
Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris of Cranberry Township, said she welcomes the investigation.
"I expected that if I lost one of my sons (in the war), it would be due to an IED or firefight," Harris told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I never expected to hear he would be electrocuted, that something so senseless happened to him."
Maseth's parents on Wednesday filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Allegheny County Court against KBR Inc., the Houston-based contractor responsible for maintaining Maseth's barracks.
An Army investigation found that his death was due to improper grounding of the electric pump that supplied water to the building, Waxman said.
When Maseth stepped into the shower and turned on the water, an electrical short in the pump sent a current through the pipes into the shower hose and then through his arm and to his heart, Waxman wrote in his letter.
The Chinese-made pump did not meet U.S. safety standards, the Army's Criminal Investigations Division said in a Jan. 21 memo responding to questions from Maseth's family. The pump was bought locally before or during the initial refurbishing of the building by Iraqis and before KBR took over maintenance, the memo said.
Harris said the military initially did not tell her that Maseth was electrocuted and then told her he "died with a small electrical appliance in the shower." She said she was later told there may have been electrical lines over his shower, and finally found out how her son died after working with Army CID and seeing a copy of the autopsy report.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and costs, alleges that KBR allowed U.S. troops to continue using "electrical systems which KBR knew to be dangerous and knew had caused prior instances of electrocution."
An initial KBR survey of the building "noted several safety issues concerning the improper grounding of electrical devices," the Army CID said in its memo. "The contract did not cover fixing potential hazards so those issues were never addressed."
The contract "only required KBR to fix the building (plumbing and electricity) as things broke," according to the memo. Since Maseth's death, KBR has been paid to fix hazards in his and several other buildings in the barracks, the CID said.
KBR declined comment on the lawsuit Wednesday night, saying in a statement that it had not seen the suit. In another statement earlier in the day, the company said it would cooperate with agencies investigating Maseth's death.
"KBR was providing repair services at the facility in response to requests issued by the Army" at the time of Maseth's death, said the company formerly owned by Halliburton Co., the oil services conglomerate once led by Vice President Dick Cheney. "The safety and security of all employees is KBR's top priority."
Since 2003, at least 12 service members have died in Iraq as a result of electrocution, according to the Army and Marine Corps.
In October 2004, Waxman said in his letter, the Army issued a safety alert that noted five soldiers had been electrocuted that year and improper grounding was a factor in nearly all of them.
Waxman has asked that by April 4 his committee be provided all the requested documents, including investigative and forensic reports on the dead soldiers and reports and communications regarding electrical grounding in military facilities in Iraq.
The investigation was sought by Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat who represents a district north of Pittsburgh.