‘Freak’ air bag rupture kills man working on sewer line west of Boynton

Updated Nov 13, 2017
John Dillon was killed Nov. 10, 2017 after an explosion at Sun Valley East, west of Boynton Beach. (Handout: Clem Winke)

John Dillon IV spent his days working at The Plumbing Experts in Delray Beach and his nights at school studying his trade.

The 27-year-old had been with the company only two years when he was killed Friday afternoon in a “freak accident” at the Sun Valley East retirement community west of Boynton Beach, said the company’s owner, Clem Winke.

Dillon was one of four men working to repair a broken storm sewer line that had caused a small sinkhole. The crew tried plugging a pipe with an 18-inch air bag to stop water from the community lake from coming in to the 8-foot wide by 3-foot deep hole.

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But the air bag exploded, killing him.

Three days later, Winke still doesn’t know what went wrong.

“I wasn’t there but I think once the air bag burst then the water behind it pushed the air bag out of the pipe and hit John,” said Winke, whose company has been in business for 42 years.

Winke said he spent Friday talking with investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and has met with Dillon’s family.

“We’ve been very open and transparent,” he said.

Winke said he’s never heard of this happening and has never had an employee injured in a major accident.

When reached by phone, Dillon’s mother, Lynda Scarberry Dillon, declined to comment.

“It’s a real tragic loss here at the company,” Winke said. “Everybody is very sad. A lot of people were crying. He was very well liked by everybody and a great guy.”

Dillon of Fort Lauderdale was in the plumbing apprenticeship program, which lasts four years. As part of that, he went to school two nights a week to learn the trade and worked during the day. He recently had been promoted to service plumber and had his own truck.

The explosion happened just before 2 p.m. Friday on Pavarotti Terrace just north of Boynton Beach Boulevard between Military Trail and Jog Road. Dillon died at the scene. Two other workers were treated for injuries but didn’t have to go to the hospital, said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Capt. Albert Borroto.

Jean Manuel, 78, who lives in Sun Valley East, said she heard the explosion.

“I’m right in front of it,” she said. “They were standing in my yard.”

Manuel said there was a small caved-in part of the street where it wouldn’t be safe to drive so community leaders put cones around it. She said she hadn’t seen anyone work on the hole Monday morning.

Winke said the air bag procedure is standard and the only way to fix something that’s under water.

“You have to stop the water from coming in,” he said.

Winke said the crew was working with rented equipment and used the air bag to stop water from the lake from entering the pipe and filling the hole. They were also using a pump to get the water out but the ground water was coming in faster than the pump could pump it out. They turned to the air bag procedure to stop the water from coming in. Then the pump would be able to work.

“I don’t know why it burst,” he said.