Troubleshooters: Ky. issued stop work order to yacht club 2 days before diver was electrocuted

A state building inspector issued the stop work order because the yacht club had not filed for any building permits for renovations. The stop work order was a c
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 4:06 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Diver Keith Elkins died working for the Prospect Yacht Club on the Ohio River before Thunder over Louisville in April.

Records uncovered by WAVE Troubleshooters raised serious questions about how he died.

The Oldham County coroner’s investigation reported Elkins was using compressed air to level a floating barge at the Prospect Yacht Club ahead of the Thunder over Louisville festival.

Unfortunately, Elkins never surfaced and the coroner’s report pointed to a key problem, electricity in the water.

“He’s a beautiful person, he’s my little brother,” grief washed over Joe Elkins, as he struggled for a moment to talk about his brother. “[I’ll] never forget him. I think about him every day.”

Keith was working alone on April 22, using a copper tube to add air underneath one of the barges at the Prospect Yacht Club to level it.

His brother said Keith told him the night before he felt he was under a lot of pressure from the yacht club.

“They were wanting it complete before Thunder Over Louisville,” Elkins said.

It would be Keith’s last dive.

“Oldham County 911,” answered the dispatcher.

“Yes this is a vendor down at Prospect Yacht Club; we have a diver in the water, but we can’t spot his air bubbles in the water down there underneath by the barges,” the caller said.

“How long has he been down there for?” asked the dispatcher.

“About 30 minutes,” answered the caller.

Rescue crews were dispatched shortly before 1 p.m. Keith’s body was pulled from the river nine and a half hours later.

“We’ve been diving all of our lives, all over this world,” Elkins said. “In rivers, nasty waters. He was a great person.”

The coroner’s investigation revealed Keith had a blood alcohol level nearly double the legal limit to drive. He didn’t have a spotter and didn’t have an adequate amount of air.

“It was a two-minute dive, he was just going to go down and put an air hose in,” Elkins said.

Yet the coroner said none of those factors caused Elkins’ death. He said Keith was electrocuted.

Our investigation revealed the Kentucky Department of Housing, Buildings, and Construction issued a stop work order on April 20, two days before Keith’s final dive, because no building permits had been issued for renovations.

The coroner’s report said the building inspector told Keith about the order. State records show another stop work order had been issued in Nov. 2021 for the same issue. A spokesperson confirmed they were the same order.

“The April 2022 stop work order was a continuation of the Nov. 2021 stop work order,” the spokesperson said.

Troubleshooter investigation couldn’t determine where the electricity came from, but what was discovered were the gas pumps Prospect Yacht Club advertised as being open this spring failed a different state inspection in Oct. last year.

That state inspector found issues with electrical wiring and electrical conduit seals. When Troubleshooters checked Oldham County records, they found they hadn’t issued any electrical permit in 2021 or 2022 for the gas pumps.

“We call it the silent killer because electricity could be leaking in there and no one knows it,” Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association Vice President Kevin Cunningham said.

He joined the group after his 15-year-old son Michael died after jumping off a marina dock into electrically charged waters.

“Michael was killed instantly because it was a great amount of electric leaking into the water,” Cunningham said. “A lot of cases, someone will get paralyzed, and they can’t swim, so they take water in their lungs.”

The group has worked to pass laws requiring inspections of electrified docks because poorly maintained wiring can send electric currents into fresh water. The electricity can shock a person swimming as it uses the body to complete a circuit.

A study prepared for the U.S. Coast Guard said it only takes a third of the electricity used by a 40-watt bulb to stop a person’s heart.

“Anywhere there’s electric, people shouldn’t be in the water,” Cunningham said.

Following Kieth’s death, the state sent a violation letter to the yacht club offering to settle the matter for $3,000.

The yacht club’s attorney told the state they never got the April stop work order. Records show the U.S. Postal Service returned the letter after it had gone unclaimed.

Emails between the state and the lawyer show DHBC agreed to waive the fine and allow the bar to reopen while plans for additional renovations are drawn up.

WAVE requested an interview with the yacht club’s lawyer, Berry Baxter. He declined, saying they were still investigating Keith’s tragic death. He also disputed the coroner’s report saying more divers went into the water to recover Elkins’ body and weren’t electrocuted.

Troubleshooters confirmed with the LMPD dive team the power was shut off, and they posted an officer to guard the electrical box before they started their dive.

A detailed list of questions was sent to Baxter asking about the lack of electrical permits, the stop work orders, the pressure Keith’s family said he was under, and the metro dive team’s decision to post a guard at the power box before diving to search for Keith.

“At this time, my client has no further comment regarding these matters,” responded Baxter.

“We had a lifetime together,” Elkins said.

Joe said they’re still processing Keith’s death and considering their options. But he’s sure of one thing.

“It wasn’t my brother’s fault that he died,” he said.

OSHA declined to investigate Elkins’ death because he was an independent contractor.

In an email to the coroner’s office, the agency said there was no employer-to-employee relationship.

Troubleshooters also reached out to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Both agencies said they had referred the case to OSHA.

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