Last January, Mike Rongey, a seasoned climber, was assigned to climb a cell phone tower in Mount Vernon, Wash., to replace electronics that are part of the Clearwire wireless network.
After doing a safety check, Rongey, 32, hooked his full-body harness to the tower and started climbing. About 90 feet off the ground, he clipped his safety line to a thick steel chain wrapped tight around the tower pole. That’s when a mount the chain ran through pulled apart, and Rongey fell to his death.
His foreman, Brian Mudwilder of Wren Construction in Everett, witnessed the fall.
"I was in shock," Mudwilder told Mount Vernon Police later that day. "My first thought was there's no way this is actually happening. Because I just saw my friend and coworker falling."
Rongey had been tower climbing for nearly four years. According to his family, he loved the work.
Mudwilder told police Rongey had done everything right on that climb.
"He's always safety conscious," Mudwilder said. "That's one of the hardest things for me to understand what the hell happened. He's not the gung-ho, 'Nothing bad will ever happen to me' mentality at all. He's safe. He's been through all the training."
Investigations into Rongey’s death revealed what happened: Six years earlier, the chain mount had been installed upside down. So when Rongey attached his harness to the chain and put his weight on it, the chain popped out of the mount, and he fell.
Yet, the question of who to blame for the tower’s unsafe condition remains contested, in part because at least seven companies had some role in building, owning or working on the tower.
So far, the state Department of Labor and Industries has fined Rongey's employer, WS Consulting and Construction, $450 for not following its written safety plan. The Sammamish-based firm is appealing the fine and is scheduled for a mediation hearing on Wednesday.
Labor and Industries has not penalized other firms that are associated with the Mount Vernon tower.
The cell phone tower itself is owned by Crown Castle, but the equipment on the tower is managed by the Swedish multinational firm Ericsson. The tower provides signals for the Clearwire network, which is now part of Sprint. Crown Castle, based in Houston, is the nation's largest owner of cell phone towers. (There are about 100,000 cell towers across the US.)
Appealing the $450 fine, attorneys for WS Consulting told the state that neither the firm nor Rongey could have known that the mount was upside down – it was out of sight, on the opposite side of the pole from where climbers go.
The chain mount was installed six years before Rongey climbed the tower – and not by WS Consulting.
Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for Labor and Industries, said the subcontractor that installed the chain mount upside down has gone out of business.
The former owner of that now-defunct firm, Pacific Coast Tower, denied installing the mount or paying anyone else to do so.
"I wouldn't know anything about that," Larry Loth of Granite Falls told KUOW. "I only put an antenna on that tower. We never put mounts on that tower."
Loth said he had the receipts to prove it.
None of the seven companies has accepted responsibility for installing a critical component of the tower upside down.
"Our core business is not climbing cell phone towers or servicing cell sites," Sprint spokesman John Taylor said. "That is why we contract that work out. It's something our contractors and subcontractors would be responsible for."
Rick Gleason, a workplace safety instructor at the University of Washington and a former state safety inspector, said the $450 seemed “exceptionally low for the death of a worker."
Gleason said Labor and Industries' goal isn't to raise revenue; it's to make workplaces safer.
But other kinds of violations have yielded more significant fines. Last winter, after sewage spilled into a creek in Bothell, the state fined King County $22,000.
And when a Snohomish County recycling company hauled waste to Eastern Washington instead of handling it locally, the county fined the firm $939,000.
"That's one of the hardest questions to answer, how can the penalty be so low when somebody has died," said Fischer, the state spokeswoman. She said the penalty would be the same whether or not Rongey died.
"It doesn't reflect that somebody died,” she said. “It reflects the conditions we found in the inspection."
The state's maximum fine for a serious workplace safety violation is $7,000; the average fine is closer to $700. By law, fines must be reduced for five different factors, including if the employer is a small business.
"We're really a state of small employers, so 90 percent of all the employers in Washington have 10 or less employees," Gleason said. "They all get a large break."
Fines for workplace safety violations go into a state fund for widows and orphans of workplace accident victims.
Climbing cell-phone towers is one of the nation's most dangerous jobs. Twelve cell-tower industry workers died in 2013, up from one death the year before. ProPublica reports that tower climbers fall from their workplaces about 10 times as often as other types of construction workers.
Workers who build steel-framed buildings or work on roofs are covered by detailed sets of safety regulations to keep them from falling. Cell tower workers have much less protection.
Gleason called telecommunications "an industry that's not very particularly regulated."
While the National Association of Tower Erectors has a set of recommended practices for climber safety, state and federal requirements for safe tower climbing have gone largely unchanged since 1975.
The safety of workers in the rapidly evolving telecommunications field has been compromised as a result, according to the Department of Labor and Industries. In 2009, the agency proposed updating those safety rules. The effort stalled when Governor Chris Gregoire issued a moratorium on new regulations. Last summer, the state again started the long process of updating those regulations.
"The only thing I can say is you never expect to lose one of your children before yourself," Kathy Rongey, Mike Rongey's mother, said.
The family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against several companies associated with the Mount Vernon tower.
"His one-year anniversary is coming up Jan. 4, and this has been a horrific situation that we're all struggling with,” Kathy Rongey said recently. “Hopefully it never happens again."
'I Worry Every Day'
Mike Rongey grew up in Renton and then Maple Valley, in south King County, and he had country style, including a fondness for cowboy hats, fishing and hunting. After working other kinds of construction jobs, he followed his brother Jon's footsteps and became a tower climber.
Both brothers were tower climbers with WS Consulting when the accident happened. Jon Rongey still works for the company.
"Tallest one I've ever climbed was 750 feet," Jon Rongey said.
Hearing that, his mother gasped. She said she always worried about the safety of her two climber sons.
"Just like I worry about Jon every day," Kathy Rongey said.
She worries, even though Jon Rongey now does more managing and less climbing than before. Jon assigned his brother to climb the Mount Vernon tower the day Mike died.
"I told him it was an easy day that day, and when he was done, he could go fishing," Rongey said.
Jon Rongey said climbing towers isn't that dangerous if it's done right, with well-trained workers, and without cutting corners. He said there can be a lot of pressure to "hit the numbers" by getting towers built quickly.
"Our company never operates like that. It's not worth it for me to risk somebody's life so somebody else gets their bonus," Jon Rongey said.
He said for him and his brother, being on top of a tower was a thrill.
"The view you see from up there is amazing," Jon Rongey said. "The mountains, the summer time, it's amazing. It's a fun job if you work with the right people, and it's not all about hitting the numbers."
Jon Rongey said most cell tower accidents are due to climber error, not mechanical failures. After his brother died, he said WS Consulting wouldn’t allow its climbers to climb a pole that had a chain mount, which is one of the more common devices used to hold antennas and equipment onto a tower pole.
"It's obviously too easy for an accident to happen on those mounts," Jon Rongey said. "I don't trust them now. I don't trust other people's craftsmanship. Whether other people trust them, other companies, that's up to them."
Now, for towers with chain mounts, WS Consulting's tower workers get a ride up in the bucket of a lift truck instead of taking the risk of climbing them.