When a Winery Kills (April 19, 2000)

Behind the serene vistas of the Northcoast's wine country exists a highly mechanized, chemically-dependent, industrial production process as hazardous to the people who make wine as any West Virginia coal mine is to the men who bring the coal up out of the earth. And the wine business, genteel appearances aside, can be as ruthless as any coal company.

Williams & Selyem Winery is hardly noticeable in the splendor of its natural setting on Westside Road, nearly 20 miles of proudly announced wineries housed in large, expensive structures designed to grab attention amid meticulously maintained vineyards. Now crowded with wine tourists, the old country two lanes meander from prosperous Healdsburg in the north to less prosperous Forestville to the southwest. Near the Forestville end of Westside Road sits an unprepossessing cluster of shed-like structures stuck back off the road with nothing but its street address -- 6575 -- to alert the passerby of its presence. The passerby would be surprised to learn that there's a five-year waiting list for the wine produced in these modest circumstances, some of the best wine in the world knowledgeable people say. There's no tasting room at 6575, no la di da trappings of any kind. Just the goods, quality pinot since 1981, a pedigree considered almost ancient in a business bulging with wealthy novices.

It's difficult to reconcile the beauty of 6575's area of Westside Road with what happened there the afternoon of January 7th, 1999. That afternoon a vivid, much admired young man somehow suffocated to death in a wine tank. 

His name was Taylor Atkins. He was 20 years old. His friends had all kinds of nicknames for their easy going, 6' 7" buddy: "Moon Boy," "Big Tay," "Stick Man," "Tay Bob Dude Babe," and they miss him terribly.

These days, looking east out across the vineyards at Mount St. Helena, squeezed between the roadbed and a burbling little stream, Taylor Atkins' family and friends maintain a tiny shrine with Taylor's merry face the photo-centerpiece of a white cross surrounded by an irreverent collection of Taylor-related artifacts -- toy cars, a bottle of Lagunitas Brewing Company Beer, a reggae bumper sticker, a quarter moon pendant. 

Taylor's death continues to reverberate in West Sonoma County. He was an unusually popular young man, "the kind of kid who made you happy just to see him coming," one of his high school teachers says. "Not a mean bone in his body." 

When Taylor died so suddenly and so unreasonably, the entire community felt his loss, and felt it keenly. More than a year later, even people outside his family have a difficult time talking about Taylor without choking up. 

"There was a peacefulness, a kindness about him," Cheryl Bonacorso says about the gentle young giant who worked in her daycare center for four years, "Taylor was special. Children just adored him."

At Taylor's crowded memorial service, attended by several hundred people from all over Sonoma County, some of the most affecting moments were those when children, unbidden, appeared at the podium and tried to say how much they missed him.

Taylor Atkins should not have died the way he did, and his mother and father should not have had to endure the many little deaths they've suffered since his death. The winery says it was Taylor's own fault he died on the job; that's not true but in Sonoma County the wine industry decides what's true and not true. 

In its starkest expression, this is how Taylor Atkins' death was described by the Sonoma County District Attorney's office:

"On January 7, 1999, the victim, Taylor J. Atkins, an employee for seven months of the William Selyem Winery located at 6575 Westside Road, Healdsburg, was asphyxiated when he climbed into a 1500 gallon wine tank, a confined permit space, that had been devoid of oxygen by placing nitrogen gas into the tank during the bottling process. Williams Selyem Winery failed to provide adequate training to any exposed employees regarding the presence, location, and health hazards associated with any confined spaces or permit-required confined spaces; and the 1500-gallon wine tank which was inerted with nitrogen gas during the bottling process was not posted with danger signs to alert any exposed employee of the existence, location, and danger posed by the permit confined space."

Nobody can say for a fact what happened, but everybody can say for a fact that it should not have happened. 

A little more than a year ago, on a day that began as one of the happiest in the Atkins' family history, the day that 20-year-old Taylor and his older brother, 22-year-old Arron had just bought the little run down house twenty feet from their parent's front door, "a shack, really," their mother, Cristine Atkins calls it, "definitely a fixer-upper," Charles Atkins, the boys' father adds.

But the afternoon of that hopeful, happy day, Taylor Atkins died, and the joy escaped their ridgetop Forestville neighborhood and all the neighborhoods around like the air from a burst balloon.

Christine Atkins is a tall, stately woman in her early forties. Charles Atkins is soft spoken and prematurely gray man also in his early forties. The Atkins home is festooned with pictures of their children at their various ages, making the visitor aware at a glance that the purpose of this family is family. Charles Atkins smiles as he attributes Taylor's memorable height, 6'7" to his wife's family. "Her dad was real tall too," he says, motioning towards Cristine, who adds, "We're all tall on our side."

Mrs. Atkins is a housewife. Mr. Atkins is a skilled craftsman. He works not far from his home building custom kitchen counter tops. Arron, who was practically an extension of his younger brother, is a construction worker. Chelsea is a senior at nearby El Molino High School.

"We heard the sirens," Cristine Atkins begins, not reluctantly but her grief audible as she describes the day that has devastated them ever since. "We'd just gotten home from the store where we'd gone to buy things for Taylor's and Arron's celebration of buying the place next door. Arron said someone had called from the winery; that Taylor had fallen in a tank and was unconscious…"

The Atkins rushed down the hill, through the redwoods, across the old bridge over the Russian River, frantically north to William & Selyem Winery on Westside Road, only minutes from their home.

At the winery, Taylor was dead, his long body covered by a sheet. The worst that could happen had happened.

"We had appointment at the bank to sign the papers on the house next door Taylor and Arron were buying," Cristine Atkins recalls. "I picked Taylor up at the winery at noon because he needed to get the money for the closing costs out of the bank. I dropped him back at work at 12:35, and at 3 he was dead."

Nobody wanted Taylor to die, but Williams & Selyem Winery didn't waste much time grieving. They acted immediately to protect themselves. 

Jean Arnold, the company's president at the time, made it clear to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Mary Callahan that Williams Selyem emphasized safety first. In Callahan's story called "Winery Worker Found Dead" in the Press Democrat of January 9th 1999, Ms. Arnold is quoted as saying, "The gases are odorless and colorless that you use. That's why you use so much training." 

Earlier in Callahan's account of Taylor's death, Ms. Arnold has apparently informed the writer that training in the hazards of the bustling production plant is a constant emphasis: "It was unknown Friday exactly why he went inside the wine production tank despite ongoing training in the hazards of the gases used in bottling wine, including nitrogen, which is injected into the tanks to prevent oxygen from spoiling the wine."

There was no safety training program at Williams & Selyem until the winery's Los Angeles lawyer discovered one a week after Taylor's death, and even that conjured program was conceded by the lawyer, a man named Groveman, to be informal and undocumented, conducted, perhaps, perhaps not, after work in "tailgate" seminars at the back end of a pick-up truck. 

Attorney Groveman even went so far as to say that Ross Cobb, Williams & Selyem's young enologist, was the winery's "safety officer," which was still news to Cobb a year after Taylor's death. In a report by a Sonoma County District Attorney's investigator by the name of Loden in November of 1999, Loden asked Cobb if he was the winery's safety officer. 

"Cobb said no. I told Cobb another employee indicated he was the safety officer. Cobb said he didn't know why anyone would refer to him in that capacity." 

The winery's lawyer claims, with an incriminating vagueness, "At the beginning of August 1998, as part of his job training, the supervisor, Cabral, demonstrated the step by step procedure for cleaning the tank at issue from the outside. The employee was told that all work on the tank was to be done from the outside." 

At Williams & Selyem, a 9-person operation, there wasn't anything like the "repeated training, entry prohibitions, repeated warnings about confined space hazards and repeated training on the hazards of the gases sufficient to alert any exposed employee….." claimed by the winery's attorney. 

In the same document, after asserting a training program where there was none, a fact unanimously confirmed by the testimony of the winery's own employees to Cal-OSHA inspectors, Groveman blames Taylor for his own death.

"The employee ignored his training. He violated (sic) due to his overconfidence related to height (6 ft 5 inches) and the small height of the tanks (5 feet, 1 inch). It is very likely that his overconfidence was increased by the presence of marijuana and codeine in his blood."

Marijuana is not known to make people suicidal. No one smoked marijuana at work. Taylor had not smoked marijuana the day of his death. Marijuana can be detected in the bloodstream up to 30 days after it is inhaled. The autopsy report's mention of codeine in Taylor's blood is disputed inside the lab where the analysis was performed. 

As for the allegation that Taylor's height, carelessly put two inches under his true height of 6' 7" by attorney Groveman, would have enabled him to enter the tank with his head out of it, OSHA inspector Don Cavales notes, "This is a highly biased and erroneous assumption. The tank was raised by two hydraulic jacks ….. uplifting one side at least a foot. The deceased could not possibly stand up straight inside the tank, nor be confident about his height to tower over the manhole opening."

But Williams & Selyem insists that Taylor Atkins made a stupid mistake and paid for his heedlessness with his life.

Although there was no safety program, or safety devices, or visual safety warnings on the tanks, or safety equipment at Williams & Selyem, it can be assumed that Taylor had often been warned of the hazards of his work place. The dangers of the tanks are implicit in the job. It's impossible to work at a winery and not know that climbing into a tank can cost you your life. 

"All of a sudden," Taylor's father, Charles Atkins remembers, "and within a week of Taylor's death, just after the memorial service, Taylor went from being this guy they adored to an idiot because 'We trained him, we told him. It's all Taylor's fault. He ignored his training. His height made him over-confident. He had marijuana in his blood.' "

Cristine Atkins can't contain her outrage at both the cynical manipulation of the facts of her son's death and how the wine people all ran for cover.

"After the memorial we haven't seen any of those people. None of them." 

Mrs. Atkins says people associated with the winery that she and her family had known "clear back to when Taylor was a baby" now refuse to talk to her.

To admit to the facts of Taylor Atkins' death would be to accept responsibility for it, and that seems to worry the man who owns Williams & Selyem more than the possibility of someone else dying at his winery. 

Williams & Selyem Winery was founded in 1981 by two men who still live in the area, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. In February of 1998 Williams and Selyem sold their modest enterprise for the immodest sum of almost $10 million to a very wealthy, well-connected New York man by the name of John Dyson. 

Dyson has functioned as deputy mayor for finance and economic development for the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. When he isn't managing New York's money Dyson has plenty of his own to keep a gimlet eye on. The wine-related part of the Dyson fortune consists of Millbrook Vineyards and Winery in New York's Hudson Valley; in California he owns vineyards in the Central Valley near Gilroy and Hollister, collectively known as Pebble Ridge Vineyards. Dyson also owns a vineyard and winery in Tuscany, a prize acquisition envied by all the heavy hitters in an industry teeming with acquisitive, envious parvenus. Dyson is also somewhat famous as the man who created the famous I (heart) New York at a time Gotham seemed particularly unlovable.

It's safe to say the guy isn't likely to be picking up his groceries at the local food bank any time soon.

When Dyson snagged the prestigious Williams & Selyem Winery in early 1998, Williams & Selyem's product was described in a consensus industry opinion by one vinous voluptuary as "Pinot Noir at its most seductive and opulent." 

Taylor Atkins was hired by John Dyson's Williams & Selyem Winery only a few months before he died there. Burt Williams was still serving as a consultant to the winery he'd co-founded, Jean Arnold was hired by Dyson as the winery's president, Robert "Bob" Cabral was brought in to make the famous pinot, Ross Cobb was hired on as enologist. The adult children of the successful winery's founding fathers worked in the office and helped out with whatever needed doing. Although a New York big wig owned the place, Williams & Selyem was still a 9-person mom and pop operation run like a mom and pop operation is run -- non-bureaucratically.

The Atkins are the least mercenary parents imaginable considering the magnitude of their loss against the powerhouse resources of the winery's owner, John Dyson. The Atkins want two things: They want the winery to admit that its carelessness caused their son's death, and they want basic safety devices put in place that would make it impossible for anybody else to suffocate in a wine tank.

John Dyson has acted like the Atkins want his Tuscany villa.

"Yes, Mr. Dyson called to say he was sorry," Christine says, "but then he said things like this happen all the time, and he talked about how some workers at a flour mill back east had died. Talk about not getting it! Taylor would not have died if Dyson had invested just a few dollars in safety equipment at his winery." 

Debbie Sternberg, a close, long-time friend of the Atkins family, who is a prize-winning amateur winemaker and also happens to work as an occupational safety specialist, says that she's "amazed" at the lack of in-place safety procedures and devices at not only Williams Selyem but most small wineries. 

"Here you have an invisible, odorless substance that can immobilize your lungs with one breath and not even a two dollar warning sign on the tank? It's unbelievable! No, it's unacceptable. There should be signs, and bells and whistles, double locks, double personnel -- the works. It should be impossible for a six foot seven inch 20-year-old in perfect health to fall unconscious into a four-foot tank through a 20-inch open hatch at its top." 

A month after Taylor's death, Cal-OSHA, announced it was proposing fines against Williams & Selyem amounting to $6,400. 

"Citation 1" was called a "General citation" for the winery's not having "either fixed ladders or permanent ramps or stairways to its tanks. A portable ladder was used to access the top of the bottling tank each time the manhole cover is opened for cleaning and each time the nitrogen gas line is attached to the manhole cover."

Cal-OSHA says this one will cost the winery $200.

A second "General" violation, which would seem to be much more serious, was also assessed against Williams & Selyem by Cal-OSHA at the price of a speeding ticket. 

"Before an employee enters the space, the internal atmosphere shall be tested with a calibrated direct-reading instrument, for the following conditions in the order given: a. Oxygen content, b. Flammable gases and vapors, and c. Potential air contaminants."

In other words, is there air to breathe in the tank you are about to enter? 

Two hundred dollars for not having visual means of assessing the oxygen in the confined space you're about to enter is like driving a hundred miles an hour without headlights on a very dark night.

The "General" fine proposed by Cal-OSHA is explained further: "Bottling/Cellar Area -- Employer has no available direct reading instrument to test the internal atmosphere inside the tank prior to any entry by any exposed employee."

Taylor Atkins was indeed driving blind, driving fast, driving in the dark.

And these are the "General" or less serious OSHA findings. Now for the serious violations:

"The employer did not provide training so that all employees whose work is regulated by this section acquire the understanding, knowledge, and skill necessary for the safe performance of the duties assigned utter the permit-required confined space program."

Of course. But an oxygen gauge is right in your face, as is a simple warning sign on the tank, or an alarm bell, or double locks which would require two persons to unlock, and any or all of the above and Taylor Atkins would still be with us. 

Williams & Selyem, however, through its then-president, Jean Arnold, immediately told the Press Democrat that training is an integral part of the winery's work site procedures, and that Taylor's death was an accident he himself had caused.

The first "Serious" violation is fleshed out by Cal-OSHA in this one-sentence, sub-paragraph: "Bottling/Cellar Area -- Employer failed to provide adequate training to any exposed employee regarding the presence, location, and health hazards associated with any confined spaces or permit-required confined spaces."

And the second "Serious" violation: "If the workplace contains permit spaces, the employer shall inform exposed employees by posting danger signs or by any other equally effective means of the existence and location of and the danger posed by the permit spaces."

Appended is Cal-OSHA's description of the specific lethal conditions that killed Taylor Atkins at Williams & Selyem Winery: 

"The 1500 gallon wine tank which was inserted with nitrogen gas during the bottling process, was not posted with danger signs to alert any exposed employee of the existence, location, and danger present in the permit confined space."

Mr. Dyson and his Los Angeles lawyers are appealing Cal OSHA's findings at the penny ante fines that go with them. Although Dyson has no evidence beyond his own claims that Taylor was fully trained to beware the dangers of an unusually dangerous place of work, he says the violations should be downgraded from Serious to General, a semantic argument they'll present Friday the 21st of April in Santa Rosa before an administrative law judge. 

Dyson's lawyer will say what he's already said in his curt appeal for a hearing, that the mythical training was in place, that Taylor had been safety trained and that the winery was in full compliance with the law. It didn't need to post signs, or install oxygen gauges, or alarm bells, or two-person locks. Taylor had been informed by "equally effective means, had violated his training and the company rules and acted out of over-confidence." 

Certainly Taylor had been warned about the hazards presented by the tanks. Those warnings are assumed as part of the job at any winery large or small. Moreover, Taylor was an extraordinarily cautious young man, the kind of kid who went straight to his guide book before he took so much as a nibble after a day in the woods picking mushrooms. He was no dare devil. 

"Taylor was the kind of guy you could loan your car to and you'd know you'd get it back in one piece," as a close friend from high school assessed Taylor's reputation for prudence and reliability. 

This was a young man who didn't take chances. He was ultra-cautious, conservative even. Taylor Atkins would not have suffocated in a wine tank if it had so much as occurred to him that it wasn't safe. And he certainly wouldn't have died in the bottling tank if the winery had fail-safe warnings and devices in place.

Taylor's aunt, Ruthe Anderson, says bluntly, "Look. We all have days where our minds are somewhere else. If you work around things that can kill you if you zone out even for a second, the work site has to be foolproof as it's possible to make it. No matter what happened to Taylor to make him suffocate in that tank, it didn't have to happen. It could have been prevented. there shouldn't be any loopholes in the wine process. None."

Ruthe Anderson's assessment of her nephew's unnecessary and wholly preventable death is shared by Atkins family friend Debbie Sternberg, the in-home winemaker and occupational safety worker.

"I remember talking with Taylor at a community party here in Forestville a couple of months after he'd started working at Williams & Selyem. I asked him about his safety training, about what is called 'donning and doffing' or the taking on and off of a respirator while you're working around the tanks. Taylor told me he didn't go near the tanks, that he hadn't been formally trained about anything except how to drive a forklift. But his saying he didn't go near the tanks at least meant he knew they could be dangerous, but I was always worried about him." 

It was about two in the afternoon on January 7th, a Thursday, when the Williams & Selyem crew had finished bottling for the day. Just after the bottling line rattled to a halt, Robert Cabral, the winemaker, left the winery to take wine samples into Santa Rosa. Taylor, another young man named Justin Ennis, and the winery's enologist, Ross Cobb, himself a young man of 27, were cleaning up the bottling area. Cabral, Ross and Ennis had all been hired when John Dyson took over Williams & Selyem a year before. They all had previous winery experience.

Justin Ennis and Taylor were the junior men at the winery. The two of them did whatever relatively unskilled work needed doing.

Ennis had dropped a spanner, a stainless steel, screw-like part resembling an over-sized wingnut into the bottling tank on Wednesday, the day before Taylor died. The spanner secured the tank's top hatch. The tank was filled with wine when the spanner fell into it. Cabral decided to leave it there until the tank was empty the next day rather than attempt to fish it out. A replacement was devised to secure the hatch until the tank was drained and the part could be safely retrieved.

Don Cavales, the OSHA inspector who investigated Taylor's death, was told by Ennis: "I told Taylor, Ross and Bob about it and said someone has to fish it out during cleaning." Ennis went on to inform the inspector that if he, Ennis, were assigned to clean the tank he would have "fished" the part out with a piece of wire, implying that he not only knew that no one was to enter a tank but would not himself have violated the winery's unwritten but firm never-enter-the-tank rule. 

At 2:30 in the afternoon the next day, bottling completed, Ennis was told by Ross to clean barrels in back of the bottling shed. At that time Ross apparently also instructed Taylor to set up the hoses to steam clean the now empty bottling tank with the spanner resting on its floor, not that he has said he mentioned the spanner to Taylor or directed him to "fish" it out. Ross then went to the winery's bathroom where he remained for 10 to 15 minutes. 

In the confused, fatal interlude between 2:30 and 3pm, Taylor Atkins died in the bottling tank.

When Ross Cobb emerged from the bathroom 10 to 15 minutes later, he began looking for Taylor. Persons working in the office adjacent to the bottling and tank area recall Taylor coming into the office looking for Ross, and they recall Ross coming into the office looking for Taylor

Some time between 2:30 and 2:45, it can be surmised that Taylor, unaware that the tank had not been purged of its lethal load of invisible, odorless nitrogen, opened the tank's hatch, perhaps leaned his long upper torso into the tank to retrieve the displaced wingnut resting on its floor, was overcome by the nitrogen released into his face by the opened hatch, and fell head first, irretrievably unconscious, into the tank. The spanner was later found outside the tank where, staff says, they believe Taylor had tossed it just before he succumbed to the nitrogen fumes inside the tank.

Taylor's mother says that she has heard from at least one person close to winemaker Cabral that the nitrogen was not only still hooked up to the bottling tank, but that it had mistakenly been left on. 

"It was just an accident, I was told," Mrs. Atkins says. "The gas was left on but nobody knew why. The man who told me said I just had to get over it. But Ross should have told Taylor not to start cleaning until he got back. Taylor was in the tank a minimum of 20-25 minutes before he was found."

Dustin Ennis told Cal-OSHA inspector Don Cavales that he finished the tasks assigned to him by Ross Cobb "at approximately 2:40 -2:45pm and opened the back roll-up door so I was able to move out some kegs and a barrel that needed to be washed. At that time Ross Cobb was cleaning the bottling line and asked me if I had seen Taylor. I told him I had not. I then proceeded to clean the kegs and barrels. Ross then for a second time asked if I had seen Taylor yet. I told him no. After I finished with the cleaning of the kegs and barrel, I put them away. Then I proceeded towards the bottling line looking for Ross to ask him what he wanted me to do next. He wasn't there, but as I was walking toward the bottling line Ross came running around the corner from up by the tanks and yelled at me that he found Taylor passed out in the tank. This was at about 3:00pm."

Kirk Hubbard works in the winery's office. Hubbard's wife Debbie also works in the office. Hubbard, alerted by Ross that he'd just found Taylor unconscious in the tank, ran to the tank, took a deep breath, and jumped down into it, lifting Taylor feet first, with Ross and Ennis pulling Taylor from above, up and out of the tank.

Hubbard, a large man himself at 6'3", was not affected by whatever nitrogen fumes remained in the tank, which means that the nitrogen had harmlessly dissipated into the air through the tank's top hatch opened by Taylor by the time Hubbard jumped into the tank to pull Taylor out. 

Did Ross Cobb find the nitrogen on when he discovered Taylor in the tank? Nobody in an official position to ask, has asked. 

It's clear that Taylor was not made aware of the status of the wine tank before he was directed to start cleaning it by Ross Cobb, who was then out of the area for ten to fifteen minutes, leaving Taylor by himself to prepare to clean the bottling tank by hooking up the hoses. 

Under the old regime at Williams & Selyem, when Williams and Selyem themselves ran the show, it was the winemaker's responsibility to check the tanks before they were cleaned And the inviolable rule of the winery's founders was that no one entered a tank for any reason. But under the Dyson management of Williams & Selyem, the winemaker, Bob Cabral, left the premises to run errands as soon as the bottling was over for the day, leaving the young enologist, Cobb, in charge. 

The first Cal-OSHA inspector assigned to investigate Taylor's death, Mike Byrne, minced no words in his summary of safety conditions at Williams & Selyem. Writing 4 days after the tragedy, Byrne declared, "In my opinion, Williams Selyem Winery was a small, family-owned and operated winery that employed a limited number of family and friends in the production of their products, fine pinot noir and cabernet wines. They had neither the safety technology, training of all employees nor safety equipment to safeguard the employees who worked for them. Their training concerning confined permit spaces of prior employees, including relatives and part-time workers, was simply to emphasize, 'do not ever enter wine vats.' "

The informality continued under the new ownership of John Dyson, remote from his latest acquisition at his home base in the Hudson Valley of New York.

Byrne's colleague, Don Cavales, sums up Dyson's after-the-fact safety program this way: "Williams & Selyem Winery presented a box of safety and training materials to the Santa Rosa Cal OSHA office after this incident. None of it concerned the issue of the hazard to employees working in confined permit spaces."

The Atkins aren't cynical people; or they weren't cynical people before their son died at his job in heedless circumstances. 

"The day Taylor died," Cristine Atkins insists, "right at the winery, Ross grabbed my hand and said, 'I'm sorry, but we told him to never go into the tank.' It was like they were trying to cover themselves from the minute we got there. That's what I felt. Ross didn't have to say that to me. It wasn't necessary. It wasn't right."

Things still haven't gotten right for the Atkins. 

Charles Atkins tries hard to keep the outrage from his voice. "We don't want to sue anyone," he says, "but how else can this winery and all the other little wineries who shortcut safety, be made to assume responsibility for the people who work for them? 17 or 18 lawyers have told us we don't have a suit -- that we can't sue the employer if the employer is covered by Workmen's Comp. And we've been hassled by Workmen's Comp because there were traces of marijuana in Taylor's blood. We've finally found a guy who will at least go after the winery's Workmen's Comp carrier."

"I don't get it," an outraged Cristine Atkins declares. "Confined space is confined space. The law is the law. Bob Cabral claims he'd taught Taylor to use respirators, but they didn't even haverespirators at the winery, and you have to be fitted to a respirator anyway. They're lying about everything."

Jean Arnold has since left her job as Williams & Selyem's president. Cristine Atkins says that Ms. Arnold suggested to her that she approach owner John Dyson "informally" for compensation for Taylor's death. 

"She told me that Dyson wasn't ' a warm man but he was a fair man,' Mrs. Atkins says indignantly. "I told her I wasn't asking him for anything. If he wants to offer money he should be doing it because he feels bad, not because he thinks he can make it all go away."

Another close friend of the Atkins family, Cheryl Bonocorso, worries about the Atkins a lot more than she worries about the other awful consequences of Taylor Atkins' death.

"This is what I know: It's killing the family," Mrs. Bonocorso says, anguish audible in her own voice. "It hurts me as their friend to see them in this much pain because it goes on and on. It's eating them up. Why hasn't the industry come to the family and asked, 'What can we do for you? They cared for Taylor. But they can't do what's in their hearts. I still think it was an accident waiting to happen. I think the winery was innocently negligent, if there is such a thing. They weren't paying attention to their own business; the whole industry isn't paying attention. I knew Taylor. He worked for me for four years. He was not a risk taker. The real tragedy that is ongoing with this family is the winery's failure to assume responsibility so it won't happen again. That's what the family wants. They don't want to sue anybody.'

For year after Taylor's death, the Atkins and their friends peppered Sonoma County's District Attorney, Mike Mullins, with calls and letters insisting that the DA at least investigate the possibility that Williams & Selyem's criminal negligence had been responsible for Taylor's death. Mullins' office ducked the case, waiting until just before the statute of limitations on criminal charges against the winery would expire to conduct a last-minute, hurry-up, one-man investigation. As hurried as it was, the reluctant investigation confirmed the earlier findings and conclusions of Cal-OSHA -- no safety training, no safety warnings, no safety devices existed at Williams Selyem. 

But what did the DA do? He issued this mealy-mouthed press release the day before the statute of limitations was up on a possible criminal prosecution of Williams & Selyem: 

"Sonoma County District Attorney J. Michael Mullins announced today he will seek OSHA reform in winery safety and training rules after weaknesses in existing rules resulted in a decision not to file criminal charges in a winery worker death case. The decision not to file charges comes on the one-year anniversary of the death of winery worker Taylor Atkins who became asphyxiated after entering a nitrogen laden wine tank at the Williams & Selyem Winery on January 7, 1999.

"After an initial investigation was conducted by Cal-OSHA an intensive follow- up review was completed by the District Attorney's office to examine whether involuntary manslaughter and Labor Code charges would be filed against the winery and its winemaker, Robert Cabral. Ultimately, the District Attorney concluded that existing OSHA regulations did not provide clear enough directives to small wineries regarding training and warning notices.

'The real crime is that a fine young man lost his life when stricter worker protections could have been in place which might have prevented this tragedy,' said J. Michael Mullins, Sonoma County District Attorney. 'I call on state legislators and safety regulators to do more to protect against the treacherous dangers posed by confined work spaces,' Mullins added."

The rule isn't clear enough?

"If the workplace contains permit spaces, the employer shall inform exposed employees by posting danger signs or by any other equally effective means of the existence and location of and the danger present in the permit confined space." (Cal-OSHA)

DA Mullins evasions were just as implausible as the winery's. The laws governing confined space safety are clear and utterly unambiguous.

Legislative remedies? 

The wine industry owns the Northcoast's legislative bodies right down to its school boards.

Cal-OSHA's work site rules are adequate, but Cal-OSHA, in the employer-dominated economy we live in, has no real enforcement power.

Media? 

Prone at the feet of King Grape. The wineries spend literal millions every year in advertising with media from the San Francisco Bay Area north to the Oregon border, and most Northcoast media bombard its readers with free industry advertising with endless stories about the industry's self-alleged glamour, but few stories about its realities.

Community watchdog groups? 

"We tried a couple," Charles Atkins says. "They told us they'd bring it up at their next meetings and that was the last we heard from them."

A year to the day after Taylor's death, Charles and Cristine Atkins, their daughter Chelsea and their son Arron, and close friends had gathered at Williams & Selyem's gate to remember Taylor. There were perhaps 25 persons gathered in a solemn cluster at the head of the winery's driveway. Waiting for them behind the gate stood an armed guard.

"We'd only decided to do it the night before," Mrs. Atkins says. "It wasn't advertised. They couldn't have known for sure that we were coming. It was the anniversary of Taylor's death. Do you think they could have put something out there to remember him? A wreath? A bouquet? No. They put an armed guard!"

As if the armed guard wasn't a large enough insult, a middle-aged woman whose name tag on her blouse identified her as the manager of the nearby Hop Kiln's tasting room, bustled up to the Atkins and their friends and, in an authoritative voice announced, "You know it was really his own fault, and he did have marijuana in his bloodstream." 

The Press Democrat refused to print a memorial notice on the anniversary of Taylor's death. 

"They said they needed proof that the winery had been cited by Cal-OSHA for safety violations," a disgusted Cristine Atkins says, adding, "As if it wasn't a matter of public record." 

And in a Press Democrat article by Chris Smith about DA Mullins' perfunctory last minute investigation and implausibly evasive decision to close the case to criminal prosecution, Smith felt it necessary to mention that marijuana had been detected in Taylor's blood, raising that irrelevant canard in a typical tip of the journalo-hat to the wine industry.

And on it goes. An unending but across-the-board evasion of responsibility for the preventable death of a memorable young man. 

Friday in Santa Rosa the Atkins will listen to lawyers argue the semantics of their son's death as a multi-millionaire tries to persuade a judge to call Cal-OSHA's violation "General" rather than "Serious." John Dyson is afraid if "Serious" means serious, he killed Taylor Atkins.

Mr. Dyson's lawyer will say that the winery had done everything it could have done to prevent Taylor from dying in its bottling tank. The winery had trained Taylor and warned Taylor and scared Taylor away from the tank that killed him, but for some reason the boy climbed on into the nitrogen anyway. "And, much as I hate to say it, your honor, because we know how sad it is for the family," the LA lawyer will say because Mr. Dyson has paid him a lot of money to libel the dead and drive however much pain into his parents so long as his boss escapes responsibility, "there was marijuana in the young man's blood."

A judge nobody knows or is likely to see again will nod solemnly and announce that he's "taking the matter under advisement," although there isn't a judge between Paso Robles and Portland who would dare take on the wine business, and in a few weeks Charles and Cristine Atkins will receive a letter from the judge saying that "based on the facts as presented" he has determined that "Serious" means "General" and that their son died because he made a mistake.

By the time all the lies and the evasions and the insults are over, if they ever are over, the Atkins might owe John Dyson money. 


What Charles & Cristine Atkins Want 

  1. Safety regulations need to be the same for all wineries, regardless of size and number of employees. All wineries comply.
  2. Safety training regarding all equipment used in the wine industry including proper instruction on confined space regardless of an entry/no entry policy be documented in written form by employer and employee. Signed by both, dated, and the time.
  3. Safety and danger signage on all inside and outside tanks warning of danger of gasses that can cause harm or death to employees. Old tanks must be brought up to code or become obsolete.
  4. All wineries should be required to use safety reading devices to let employees know if it is safe to be near or enter tanks, lock out, tag out lights, buzzers, safety harnesses and respirators mandatory.
  5. Mandatory buddy system for cleaning around and in tanks.
  6. Built in signage for all new tanks being produced by the manufacturer that requires confined space training. It should be a non-option policy.
  7. Regular but unannounced OSHA inspections before another injury or death occurs.

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