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A day to honor 2 for bravery on the job

26 January 2009

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- On Feb. 2, David Snow plans to drag his battered body to Travis Koehler's graveside.

Snow's and Koehler's names will be always intertwined. The two fell unconscious together two years ago in a manhole at the Orleans in an accident that killed Koehler and another maintenance worker, Richard Luzier. Snow recovered after weeks on life support.

Last year on the anniversary of the incident, Snow joined Koehler's family as they tied messages to helium-filled balloons and released them.

"We talked about what I remembered about the accident," Snow recalls. "We said, 'Where do we go from here? What do we do?'?"

Gov. Jim Gibbons has declared Feb. 2 a day to honor Koehler and Snow, his spokesman said last week.

For the families, the proclamation is welcome recognition. Yet bitter feelings toward the governor and other state officials linger.

The families contend that after an investigation into the deaths, the state wrongly agreed to a settlement with Orleans owner Boyd Gaming that lessened the company's responsibility.

"At first I was a little ticked off when I heard about the proclamation," said Debi Fergen, Koehler's mother. "I was like, 'What is the governor trying to do?' But then my husband said, 'Will you stop? This is a good thing for Travis.'?"

Fergen has spent the past year seeking accountability for her son's death from the state and Boyd Gaming.

A letter from her prompted a Labor Department investigation that found problems with Nevada's settlement with Boyd. And Fergen recently filed a civil suit against the gaming company.

For one day she'll put all of that aside and accept her son's posthumous honor.

"It's really cool as a mom that people remember, but I'd rather it not be for this reason," Fergen said.

She called Snow to tell him the news.

Snow is still recovering from a motorcycle accident on Aug. 5 that again threatened his life. "To me, Travis is my hero," he said.

Both Snow and Koehler were named heroes last year by the Carnegie Hero Fund, an organization that awards medals for personal bravery.

On Feb. 2, 2007, after Luzier entered a manhole to fix a pipe and was overcome by toxic fumes, Koehler and then Snow entered to save him.

A state inspector originally found Boyd had "willfully" disobeyed safety laws, a rare finding that means the company knew what it was doing was dangerous and in violation of safety laws, but did it anyway. The agency downgraded the citations to "serious" violations in a last-minute and highly unusual settlement that involved top political appointees in a process that is usually confined to regulators.

A Boyd spokesman has called the incident a "horrific tragedy" and said the company would work hard to prevent another accident. Under the settlement worked out with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Boyd is revamping its safety policies and procedures.

The Business and Industry Department that oversees the state's workplace safety agency insists nothing in the settlement and negotiations was inappropriate.

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