‘I have to know.’ Wife of worker killed in garbage truck accident looking for answers

The wife of the Gilton sanitation worker who was crushed by a hydraulic mechanism on the garbage truck went to the scene of his death in Riverbank on Tuesday in search of answers.

“I would like to see video, to see my husband, I have to know, I have to see it, I just have to,” Alcira Vega said a few feet from where Ismael Martinez-Huertas was killed on Homewood Way Monday afternoon. “It has been eating me alive since last night. I hope he went in peace, no pain at all, because he did not deserve any pain.”

She did watch a video from a surveillance camera at a nearby house that showed her husband, a 30-year-old Modesto father of two, drive by in the garbage truck and stop. The front of the truck where the accident occurred was just out of frame.

Amoz Marshall said Vega showed up at his door sobbing and he showed her the video. “She saw his final moments,” he said.

Time stamp on the video shows the accident occurred around 3:32 p.m., but it wasn’t until 4:22 p.m. that a passerby stopped and called 911.

Martinez-Huertas was dead when deputies arrived on scene at 4:26 p.m.

“He was so loving and caring, he was just amazing, and he did not deserve this at all; it’s not fair,” said Vega. “I had to explain this to our children. Step in my shoes for a moment and tell your 12-year-old and your 4-year-old (sons) that poppy’s not coming back.”

Vega said early Tuesday afternoon that she hadn’t yet spoken to anyone from Gilton.

Richard Gilton, president of Gilton Solid Waste Management, said he’d reached out but hadn’t yet connected with the Martinez-Huertas family.

“It is a very tragic situation; our hearts and prayers go out to Ismael’s family,” Gilton said.

He said Martinez-Huertas was found “pinned between the body of the truck by the arm that dumps the cans into the hopper.”

“We are still ... trying to figure out exactly how did this take place,” Gilton said. “There is a lot of mystery to the position Ismael was found in. We have a team of investigators working on it to see if we can come to that conclusion, of what actually did take place, to make sure it never happens again.”

Gilton said a trash can was found inside the hopper, so it is likely it fell in and Martinez-Huertas was trying to retrieve it from the hopper when the accident occurred.

He said employees are taught to turn off the truck whenever they are working outside it. He didn’t know if Martinez-Huertas did that but said sheriff’s deputies indicated the truck was running when they arrived on scene.

Martinez-Huertas had worked at Gilton for three months and had been operating the truck on his own for about five weeks, Gilton said. Sanitation workers drive with supervisors until they are cleared to operate the truck solo.

Vega said that for the past month her husband had been complaining that the arm on the truck had been faulty, often dropping the cans. She said he told supervisors but nothing was done.

Gilton said he is looking in to whether a complaint was made and if so, what statements were made.

Marshall, the neighbor with the surveillance cameras, said Martinez-Huertas had mentioned the problem to him as well in late July after the arm dropped his can, spilling trash onto the ground.

He found Martinez-Huertas cleaning it up and went to talk to him.

“He was a very kind man, he was very professional, he looked like he liked what he was doing,” Marshall said. “It’s a little tough to understand he’s no longer with us.”

A few people in the Riverbank neighborhood drew hearts to put on their trash cans and wrote messages to sanitation workers thanking them for the work they do to keep the city clean.

Vega found one of the hearts in the spot where her husband died. She picked it up and clutched it to her chest.

“I’ve got two boys that I got to be a mom and dad (to),” Vega said. “I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out. He always did tell me that I was strong, so I will figure it out.”

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating the accident.

Gilton has been fined by Cal/OSHA twice in the past three years for work-related fall injuries, according to the agency.

A candlelight vigil will be held for Martinez-Huertas at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the 5400 block of Homewood Way. Those who would like to attend should bring their own candles.