Gurnee man killed in Streamwood sewer a rugby athlete called 'String Bean'
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Known as String Bean to his rugby teammates, Brett Morrow's lean and wiry frame belied his natural athletic grace and grit.
"He was easily the smallest guy on the field every time," recalled teammate Ian Dreger, "but he was always the most aggressive and tenacious. If he was running beside you, you could always trust him to make the tackle for you."
That same lithe body type that made him easy to dismiss on a rugby pitch was also what made him an asset at his construction job working to install lining in slender sewer pipes that were never more than 24 inches in diameter.
The 22-year-old from Gurnee was doing that job Wednesday when authorities say the resin lining he and his crew installed in a sewer main under a Streamwood residential street collapsed, trapping him in the pipe where he ultimately died.
"I just couldn't believe it when I heard what happened," Dreger said. "To lose someone that young and who was such a good person is just devastating."
Four teams of firefighters working in pairs and specially trained in confined-space rescues had to painstakingly chip away the hardened resin lining for nearly four hours Wednesday night to reach Morrow.
"We treated it as a rescue for the entire operation because we were hopeful he was still alive," Streamwood Fire Chief Chris Clark said. "It wasn't until we got him physically out of the manhole that we could tell he had died."
Officials at the Cook County medical examiner's office said an autopsy was performed today, but a spokeswoman reported the "determination of cause and manner of death is pending further studies."
Morrow was about 30 feet into the pipe under the 500 block of South Park Boulevard that Clark estimated had a diameter of roughly 20 to 24 inches. He was part of a crew from Bartlett-based Benchmark Construction that had been lining some of the neighborhood's older sewer mains for weeks.
Construction experts said Morrow was likely in the pipe to cut holes in the newly installed lining to restore sewer service to homes on the block when the lining collapsed. The pipe was about 20 feet underground.
Clark said his department was called to the scene about 6:15 p.m. when Morrow's co-workers lost contact with him. Firefighters attempted to establish contact with Morrow as well, but Clark said rescuers never received a response.
Clark said the rescuers could see Morrow's feet through the collapsed lining, but they could not reach him through the now-hardened material.
Two Streamwood firefighters specially trained on confined-space rescues were already on duty at the time and were the first team into the sewer, Clark said. Requests for additional personnel were issued and firefighters with that type of rescue training from neighboring departments arrived soon after to pitch in.
Streamwood Village Manager Sharon Caddigan said her staff is working with investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to determine what happened inside the pipe that caused the lining to collapse. She said representatives from the construction company were also at the scene Thursday speaking with federal investigators. Meanwhile, sewer service to the homes in the area had been restored, Caddigan said.
Calls to Benchmark were not immediately returned.
According to media reports, his father Rich also works at Benchmark. A LinkedIn profile lists Rich Morrow as a 26-year veteran of the company.
The company has been fined for four separate workplace safety violations since 2000, according to OSHA records. The most recent violation stemmed from a December 2015 complaint and was issued because a worker's facial hair prevented required respiratory equipment from working properly. The company paid a $1,000 fine.
Earlier that year, Benchmark was fined $6,300 for inadequately securing a trench that inspectors said imperiled three workers.
In 2010, Benchmark paid a $1,250 fine after inspectors determined two workers using an aerial lift were not properly secured in the device.
The company also paid a $1,500 fine in 2008 after inspectors determined Benchmark workers had not taken enough care when excavating around already existing "underground installations."
OSHA spokesman Scott Allen characterized the violations as minor.
Construction experts said the work Morrow and his crew were doing is fairly routine. Ryan Hogenmiller, a project engineer for Missouri-based SAK Construction, described the process of installing the resin lining in a sewer main as "turning a sock inside out." The loose lining material is pushed into the pipe and then heated with either water or air. The heat activates chemicals in the lining, hardening it and attaching it to the pipe itself.
Once the lining is hardened and set, someone has to go into the pipe and cut holes in the new lining to open connections to the houses' sewer lines.
According to Morrow's Facebook page, he graduated from St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he played football and participated on the wrestling team. He also took up rugby during those years, playing on club teams in the region while still in high school and later at Eastern Kentucky University. Eventually, he was recruited by Erik Miller to play on the Kenosha Mammoths men's team after Miller had seen him play in college. Miller described the team as a "brotherhood" left "shattered" by Morrow's death.
"I'm usually never one to be without words, but when I heard I just didn't know what to say," Miller said. "It's just such a shock and he'll always be remembered."
Funeral arrangements are pending.
• Daily Herald staff writers Lee Filas and Eric Peterson contributed to this report.