Publix Where working can be lethal

It was just before nine in the morning on September 24, 1998, and Louis Gallart had a lot on his mind as he unloaded truck trailers on the dock of the Publix Supermarkets distribution warehouse in Deerfield Beach. He was concerned about getting home before Hurricane Georges hit. That wasn't the only thing bothering him. He and Katy, his wife of almost three years, had just decided to get a divorce. The handsome, longhaired 28-year-old was worried about how he would pay his bills on his $9-per-hour salary without his wife's income.

The Publix unloading job wasn't physically hard for a muscular young man like Gallart. His main responsibility was to remove the empty crates, pallets, and aluminum carts -- which the workers called birds -- from trucks that had returned from delivering food to the dozens of Publix stores in South Florida.

But the job had its challenges. To haul the heavy birds out of the trailers, Gallart had to use a small Barrett tow-tractor, also known as a tugger. The standard procedure was to back this vehicle into a trailer and attach birds to the rear hitch. Although a tugger resembles an oversized scooter, it's hardly a toy. A powerful 24-volt electric motor allows it to scoot along at eight miles per hour, pulling a load of several thousand pounds. Unlike a forklift, it has no protective bar or cage to shield the operator. So Gallart had to be careful as he zigzagged through the maze of darting tuggers and forklifts on the dock.

Adding to the hazards, many of the tuggers were nearly a decade old and thus temperamental. Gallart had sent his to the repair shop a few weeks earlier because it was moving too slowly, according to a handwritten log found later in his car. Other workers reported tuggers that went too fast, didn't stop quickly enough, or got stuck in reverse. And the birds, which look like large double-decker shopping carts, were iffy, too. Many were so old and rusty that their wheels sometimes fell off.

The only light inside the 40-foot trailers spilled in thinly from the dock. Gallart had to watch out for the aluminum load bars that jutted from the inside walls of the trailer, about five feet above the floor. The four-foot bars were there to secure loads during transport. Unloaders were supposed to remove them from the tracks on the trailer wall before driving a tugger inside.

Leonard Pressley, a five-year Publix veteran, was working with Gallart on the north dock that morning. He had helped train Gallart, whom he considered his friend. "Louis was a cool guy, real mellow and easygoing," says Pressley, who was fired by Publix last March after an altercation with a coworker but who hopes to return to work there. "He was beyond safe in how he approached his job."

Both men wanted to knock off early so they could get home before the hurricane. Pressley commented that help would be arriving soon, which would enable them to finish faster. "OK, let's go," Gallart called out cheerily. Pressley watched his partner motor his tugger into a trailer at Bay 32. Pressley entered another trailer.

About three minutes later, Pressley was startled by the wailing of a tugger horn. He gunned his tugger toward the sound, which was coming from Gallart's trailer. Inside he saw Gallart bent forward over the tugger's control panel, bobbing up and down. Smoke was rising from the tugger's wheels as they spun on the trailer floor. The vehicle was stuck in reverse, pinning Gallart's torso between the control panel and a load bar, which caught him across his back. For some reason, Gallart had taken down one load bar, but not the other. No one knows why. Perhaps he didn't see it in the dimly lit trailer. Or maybe he was simply in a hurry.

"At first I thought he was fixing the horn," Pressley recalls with a shudder. Usually the dock was crowded with workers, but not that morning. Pressley ran to a phone and called for help. Two other employees rushed over. According to a Broward Sheriff's Office report, the three men struggled to free Gallart, whose chest was crushed against the reverse button on top of the control console. That kept the tugger pressing him backward into the load bar. The men couldn't release the bar from the track by hand, so one of them drove a forklift into the trailer to remove it.

"As God is my witness, I don't know how it happened," Pressley says. "But once your body is pressed on that reverse button, and there's something pinning you from behind, you'll rock back and forth, and you can't turn the tugger off." Pressley nearly had a similar accident himself. "If you accidentally lean forward, you'll hit the reverse button and take off going backwards. That happened to me once."

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Harris Meyer