Frankie Crispen Jr. had a lot to look forward to this past November. He was set to take the rigorous exam that could elevate him to journeyman electrician after four years as an apprentice. Thanksgiving came the day after the state test, then it would be time to get serious about Christmas shopping.
On his final break the night of Nov. 17 at the Columbia Forest Products mill in Klamath Falls, Crispen texted his fiancée Ashley Albers, as he always did, teasing out the answers to his 11-year-old, soon-to-be stepdaughter’s math homework.
About an hour later, he responded to a call for an electrician over the intercom at the mill that sits on the banks of the Klamath River.
He was never seen alive again.
The 28-year-old’s death in the final hours of a swing shift made him Oregon’s 68th workplace fatality of 2017, according to preliminary figures from the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. At least six more people have died on the job since Crispen fell into a vat of scalding liquid that November night.
More than half the estimated 74 workplace fatalities in 2017 thus far occurred from natural causes, according to state estimates. Employees also died in car crashes and workplace accidents, data show.
State safety leaders say they don’t place much significance on single-year tallies because workplace fatalities have dropped significantly over time. In the private sector, the rate has plunged from 11.1 deaths or injuries for every 100 full-time workers in 1988 to roughly 3.7 in 2015, the most recent data available. Though construction and logging remain the most deadly sectors, safety measures designed to reduce falls have resulted in fewer accidents.
The number of compensable deaths, those eligible for workers’ compensation insurance benefits, has declined as well. The annual figure has hovered near 30 each of the past five years in Oregon, and claims accepted in 2017 to date appear headed on the same trajectory.
Michael Wood, the state’s administrator for workplace health and safety programs, said the stories behind dozens of deaths go untold each year. Despite significant advancements in workplace safety in the past two decades and a lower fatality rate despite a significantly larger workforce, he worries that death rates are merely leveling off “at best.”
“People die in this state on the job,” Wood said, “and they die unnecessarily from things we know how to prevent.”
Crispen’s grisly death shocked friends, family and colleagues in Klamath Falls, a community of 21,500 just north of the Oregon-California border. There’s no criminal inquiry, but the incident is under investigation by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Though all workplace fatalities must be reported to the state within eight hours, the agency does not investigate all deaths. The agency declined to comment on Crispin’s case, other than to say it would release a report on its findings within six months.
The mill, one of two Columbia Forest Products locations in Oregon, specializes in hardwood plywood manufacturing. In a statement, the company said it was “deeply saddened by the untimely death” and fully cooperating with the investigation.
The Greensboro, North Carolina-based company has more than 2,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada and bills itself as the largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood and hardwood veneer products in North America. The Klamath Falls plant opened in 1999.
Compounding the heartache of a life cut short, Crispen’s family is struggling with the lack of information.
His mother, Kay Moyette, said she’s been waiting to hear more about the investigation, but other than a brief story in the Klamath Falls newspaper, there’s been no media coverage or significant updates from authorities.
“It was like some lives have value and some don’t,” said Marc Waits, Crispen’s brother.
Crispen usually got home from work at 10:45 p.m., some 15 minutes after clocking out.
By 10:43 p.m. on Nov. 17, according to 911 calls, it was clear something was horribly wrong.
The dispatcher had summoned emergency workers to “a possible confined space rescue” on the back side of the 18-acre mill on U.S. 97.
Fire crews were the first to arrive, followed by Klamath County sheriff’s deputies at 11:06 p.m. By that time, Sheriff Chris Kaber said in an email, Crispen “had not been seen for a couple of hours.”
Albers started calling and texting when Crispen didn’t arrive home at his normal time, but her calls went straight to voicemail. She wondered whether he might have picked up an extra shift, something he did on occasion to make extra cash.
By 3 a.m. she was “terrified” and drove to the mill. She spotted their Ford Mustang in the parking lot. Crispen’s phone charger and other personal items were still inside.
She later learned that Crispen had fallen through the lid and into an in-ground vat filled with a corrosive liquid heated to 170 degrees, which is used to soften logs before they are processed into plywood. The vat sits a few feet above ground.
According to the state medical examiner, Crispen died from “thermal injuries and caustic burns.”
Dr. Karen Gunson said he would have “died immediately.”
Emergency personnel couldn’t safely retrieve his body until the next morning. They had to wait for the liquid to cool before draining it.
Failing to find him, Albers, meanwhile, returned home and resumed calling Crispen’s cell, dialing over and over as her daughter slept in a room nearby.
“I was just sitting on the couch waiting for him to walk through that door, and it never happened,” she said.
Just after 6 a.m., she heard a knock on the door. Crispen’s four dogs barked. She swung it open to find two officers.
Crispen was 21 years younger than his oldest sibling, Vikki Waits. But his mother always viewed her youngest child as an old soul.
Crispen was born without a left eardrum and got harassed as a kid because he frequently sported head bandages from the various medical procedures he endured, his mother said.
From an early age, Moyette said, Crispen was surrounded by older siblings and adults. His father, Francis Sr., taught him to extend his hand out when meeting someone. A handshake was simply good manners.
Crispen eventually started bulking up. “He decided rather than have people torture him, he was going to get muscled,” Moyette said.
He wanted to join the military, she said, but failed the physical because of his hearing, “which broke his heart.”
Crispen liked doing things with his hands, and enrolled in a two-year mechanic’s program at Klamath Community College. Partway through, though, he realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.
“I can’t quit in the middle mom,” he said, “I’m going to finish it.” He completed the program in 2013.
Crispen and Albers met at the National Fitness and Racquet Club in town. By that point, his once slight frame had become sculpted muscle. He ran daily, took Cross Fit classes and competed in Spartan obstacle races or anything on a whim to test his abilities.
Despite his demanding full-time job at the mill, Crispen had recently taken a second job at a local GNC, a health and nutritional supplements retailer.
Shane Jones, the store’s manager and a personal trainer, said Crispen was genuinely nice and incredibility physically fit. He loved working with customers and went out of his way to help people achieve their fitness goals.
Jones said he lost count of the number of times a customer would crack open the front door and ask. “Is Frankie here? No? OK, I’ll come back later.”
Jim Johnston, who owns the fitness club where Crispen occasionally worked out, has set up a scholarship in the 28-year-old’s name. Johnston, who plans to sponsor a free membership each year in his honor, said Crispen was a passionate and positive force for fitness in town.
Moyette, a server at a diner in downtown Klamath Falls, cherished her Thursday morning grocery outings with her youngest. He liked taking short road trips and would find reasons to make them, like driving the 170 miles to Eugene to buy tires for his truck.
A favorite trip involved a 90-minute jaunt to the In-N-Out Burger in Medford. His go-to order was two double-double burgers with ketchup and mustard only. No salt.
He had long conversations about life with Albers and Moyette. He wanted to get into management and had an interest in studying English.
He was prone to posting motivational sayings on Facebook. His Facebook memorial page’s final post reads:
“Aim to be triumphant, not successful.
“Successful is a figment of your imagination when everything is going right in your life.
“Triumphant is being able to overcome obstacles, and goals.”
Albers and Crispen’s family say they’re struggling to understand how he fell into the vat.
The family was told he was working on a motor at the time. Marc Waits said his brother was strong and extremely careful.
“I can’t imagine him just falling,” Waits said. “I can’t imagine any of this happening in a mill.”
They also say he was working alone, and wonder whether an apprentice electrician could do so legally.
Columbia Forest Products, which declined an interview for this report, would not say whether Crispen was working alone when he died. But Sheriff Kerber said the agency responded to an “unattended death” at the mill.
According to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, some programs allow apprentices to work under “indirect supervision” during the final stretches of their training.
Crispen had completed more than 8,000 hours of on-the-job training as of Sept. 26, according to a state spokesman, and had 576 hours of classroom instruction. He had taken all the necessary steps needed to take the journeyman’s exam.
But the state still must approve any indirect supervision, even if the apprentice surpasses the 6,500-hour baseline. “The Apprenticeship and Training Division has no record of approving Mr. Crispen for indirect supervision related to electrical apprenticeship activity,” the state said in an email.
Moyette said there was nothing to stop her son from falling into the vat. “There wasn’t anybody checking in on him right away,” she said. “I don’t know if that caused it. I don’t know if it could have been prevented. I believe it probably should have been.”
According to one mill employee who declined to be identified because of the ongoing state safety investigation, the mill did right by its employees by giving all 300 workers a paid week off after Crispen’s death. The company also installed a railing around the roughly 30-foot-long vat, according to that employee.
The company confirmed it had “taken remedial measures to prevent any future issues.”
In addition to the investigation following Crispen’s death, there is a separate state inspection related to several safety complaints filed anonymously on Nov. 20, three days after the incident.
The complaint cites several safety concerns, including a “lack of training on safety issues” for all employees and a workplace environment where staffers are “required to work at positions beyond their capacities, creating an unsafe work environment.”
Columbia declined to comment on the specifics included in the separate anonymous complaint, but issued a statement defending the plant’s safety practices overall.
“CFP strongly rejects any contention that it fails to adequately train employees on safety issues or that it requires employees to work outside their capacities in an unsafe manner. CFP is proud of its strong safety training program, which it has worked to develop over the course of many years, and works diligently to ensure the safety of its employees,” the company said.
The family continues to try and pick up the pieces.
Returning to her job at the Klamath Grill was a “terrible thing,” Moyette said. But customers ask about her son and offer condolences. “It’s a nice thing to have them say they loved my boy, that he was a great kid. That they loved my son,” she said. “I like to hear that.”
Albers said she’s struggling to move forward. The couple has a full gym in their home, and each morning she’s prayed on his bench, still stacked with 275 pounds in weights from his last workout. The squat bar stands nearby with 385 pounds.
More than 350 mourners filled Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Klamath Falls for Crispen’s memorial service on Nov. 27. In the lobby, there was a tray of amino acid based-powder shots, a nod to Crispen’s favorite workout supplement. Albers premixed the concoction in a pitcher.
After the ceremony, she and her daughter, Teh’ya and one of Crispen’s nephews hit the road for Medford and the In-N-Out Burger.
She ordered two double-doubles, with ketchup and mustard. No salt.
She fed them to their beloved dogs.
It’s what Crispen would have wanted.