Tradeswomen share much in common with other civil rights efforts.
Remembering trailblazers whose deaths were work-related…
Marilyn Williams McCusker
Coal Miner Marilyn McCusker of Osceola Mills, PA, became the first woman in the United States killed in a deep-mine accident when an 18-foot section of roof collapsed onto her while working as a roof bolter helper. In 1975, she, Mary Louise Carson, Margaret Queen, and Mary Ann Baum sued the Rushton Coal Mining Company for refusing them employment. A 1977 settlement won the women jobs and $30,000 back pay apiece. Pennsylvania State Rep. Scott Conklin: “In 1973, there were no women coal miners in the United States, but thanks to the diligence and dedication of women like Marilyn McCusker, that soon changed. By 1983, more than 33,000 women were in the mining workforce. Other jobs available to women at this time paid a third of what mining paid. Marilyn McCusker will forever be remembered and revered for the contributions she has made toward equal rights and for her significant role in shaping mining history. We can continue to learn from her and her tragic death by fighting to make our underground coal mines safe for those who mine coal in Pennsylvania.”
Name Not Known
She was a roughly 30-year-old Japanese-American woman eager to become a carpenter, with a “hunting license” from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in San Francisco. The Apprenticeship Opportunities Foundation––an organization that helped minority workers gain access to construction jobs––sent her to a job interview with a major Bay Area contractor known for hiring women. The interview was scheduled for after normal work hours and off-site with the company’s apprentice coordinator. Instead of being interviewed, she was raped. Concerned that other women would be referred to that contractor for employment, she went with a friend to the Women in Apprenticeship Program office to alert staff about what had happened to her. Shortly afterwards, she committed suicide, sending shockwaves through the large and highly organized tradeswomen’s community in the Bay Area. Asian-American tradeswomen would later form their own group, Blue Collared Asian Women, for support. [recollections, Susie Suafai, Bobbie Kierstead, Stella Cheng, Rosemary Leyson, Molly Martin]
Name Not Known
Pioneer Apprentice Plumber in Kansas City, KS, committed suicide [recollection, Diana Suckiel].
Laborer Pamela Hiser was crushed to death, and eight other Hardin Construction Co. workers—including her husband—were injured when support beams for the third level of the Marketplace under construction gave way as that floor was being poured. More than 275-square-feet of wet concrete fell to the second level, where 33-year-old Pamela Hiser was assigned to remove “any concrete that spilled over onto the second floor while workers poured the third-floor slab.” Hardening of the concrete hampered rescue efforts. Construction was halted for two months. OSHA cited two contractors in her death. For two “serious” safety violations, Hardin Construction Co. faced a $1,440 fine; for “willful” safety violations, Sprint Constructors was fined $10,300. Beneficial Corporation’s $1-billion Harbour Island development project, a luxury residential, office, and commercial complex on Seddon Island, across the Garrison Channel from Tampa, Florida, opened the next year. [news accounts]
While answering the fifth false alarm of the day, 29-year-old Seattle Firefighter Molly Matthews suffered a fatal skull fracture when she lost her grip and fell from the rear step of a pumper truck as the truck turned left at the corner of 12th Avenue and East Union Street. Although the official report gave the truck’s speed as 15 mph at the turn, there were claims at the time of 25-30 mph. There seems to be agreement that she was assigned––not only that day, but always––to the position on the far right, the most dangerous position in a left turn. Her death ended the practice of Seattle firefighters riding on the back of fire trucks, and led to the installation of crew cabs on older trucks. There were 45 women firefighters in the department at that time, the result of aggressive outreach and affirmative hiring plans to open the Seattle Fire Department to women and minorities. [suggestion, Melinda Nichols]
Carol Porter, Apprentice Electrician, Withdrawal card, Boston MA. Carol became an apprentice in 1979, in our IBEW local’s second class with women. When my poetry chapbook, It’s a Good Thing I’m Not Macho was published, she called to thank me for now having something she could give people who couldn’t understand what she was trying to explain. She talked about how hard it was both to be taken seriously on the job, and to convey the experience to people outside the industry. A month later she committed suicide. [recollection, Susan Eisenberg]
Utility Worker Julie Weflen of Spokane, WA, worked for the Bonneville Power Administration energizing and de-energizing power equipment, reading meters, and maintaining transformers. Her disappearance from a remote substation an hour after she had signed in to check on a transformer reported to be low on nitrogen, was ruled a kidnapping and homicide. Her hard hat and toolbox were found beside her truck, and her purse inside it. Tire tracks and drag marks at the scene convinced authorities that she was overpowered by two people.
Name Not Known
Reported by NIOSH: “A 29-year old female cement finisher died when she fell 165 feet from a high-rise office complex under construction in South Carolina.The employer is a multi-state, multi-divisional corporation that employs 14,000 workers in its construction division. The victim had been employed for only 4 days; however, she had previous experience in high-rise construction. On the day of the incident the victim and a co-worker were taken by hoist to the 12th floor with orders to patch any holes or rub out any rough spots on the 12th and 13th floors. [They] decided to return to the ground floor to eat lunch and pushed the call button for the hoist. The victim then placed her hands in her pants pockets and leaned back against the gate. What caused the gate to open could not be determined. It is possible that the clamp attaching the U-shaped latch to the body of the gate may have been loose. This would have allowed the latch to turn and the gate to open.”
Dec. 6, 1989
Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Kluznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St.-Arneault, Annie Turcotte
In three classrooms and the hallway of École Polytechnique de Montréal, fourteen women—12 engineering students, a nursing student, and a budget clerk—were murdered by a man armed with a rifle and hunting knife, an incident that became known as the Montreal Massacre. After ordering men to leave the classrooms, “he told the women who remained, ‘You’re a bunch of feminists, I hate feminists’ and began shooting. For the next 20 minutes he rampaged through the building, before turning the gun on himself. His suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life. Across Canada that night, men and women came together in impromptu vigils.Tradeswomen had phoned each other, and that night we stood close together. Mostly I remember the group of Japanese taiko players––all women––who balanced their huge drums on the marble steps and played for the women who died, for the women who were left. Their sound echoing off stone, was like laying your head to a chest, hearing powerful heartbeats. It said what we needed to hear: We’re still here, we won’t be silenced, we stand with each other, we’ll remember. I still cry when I think of that day. Since 1991, December 6 has been a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, and commemorations are held across Canada” [recollection, Kate Braid].
Carpenter Kate Braid recollects: “You could count the tradeswomen in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1980s on one hand. We all stuck out on the job site, but the most conspicuous was Carlyal. She was not just a female bricklayer, not just big (six feet tall with a bold Afro), but she was black. Carlyal loved bricks, she said, because they didn’t talk back. But after years of labourers refusing to bring her mud, and ‘accidents’ like having a two-by-four dropped on her head from two stories above where she was working, she switched to tile setting. But it pissed her off. She was a dynamite tilesetter, but eventually she had trouble getting enough work and left the trade. A diabetic, Carlyal died of a self-administered overdose of insulin, sitting against a tree in a cemetery outside Chatham, Ontario that’s famous as the graveyard for many of the slaves who fled to Canada on the underground railroad. Her loss left a huge hole in the Vancouver tradeswomen’s community.”
Su Taraskiewicz, Northwest Airline’s first female Baggage Supervisor at Boston’s Logan Airport, never returned from an early morning food run for her crew. Her absence went unreported. Thirty-six hours later, her beaten and stabbed body was found in her car trunk. A federal investigation into a stolen credit card ring run by Northwest Airlines baggage handlers was underway. “Susan’s murder forged a scar in the hearts of those of us who worked at Logan then. We still pray that justice will be found for Susan. She was a courageous young woman who dared to dream that she could do the job on the ramp as well—or better, than the men. ALL women who work in jobs that were ever considered ‘men’s work’ owe a debt of gratitude to Susan’s simple belief that she could do the job. She paid the ultimate price for all of us.” [recollection, Fairskies]
Ironworker apprentice Robin Johnson was working for Metal Buildings of Wisconsin on a new construction project in LakeView Corporate Park in Prairie Creek, when she fell 37 feet to her death. She was installing metal roof decking under very windy conditions. Known for her outspokenness on safety conditions in ironworking, she had asked her foreman for a safety harness, and is reported to have been told she didn’t need one. Before ironworking, Robin Johnson taught English in a Catholic school, taking took time off after becoming a mother. She decided to become an ironworker apprentice after separating from her husband, and at the time of her death was within weeks of the divorce being finalized. Beloved by family and friends, Robin Johnson played the guitar, wrote poetry, and was working on a book. She is survived by two daughters, then ages 8 and 12.
Katherine Leonard Romano
Ironworker Kathy Leonard Romano completed her apprenticeship and worked several years as a journeylevel ironworker in Boston. Last seen heading home after a workday on the Big Dig, her father notified police two days later that she was missing when phone calls went unreturned. Her husband, also an ironworker in the same union local and from whom she was separating, was convicted in her murder, that was witnessed by their two-year-old son. Kathy was beaten to death in her home, and her body cut up with a Milwaukee Sawzall borrowed from a neighbor in whose hall closet it was found with fragments of her bone, muscle, and tissue on the frame. Her husband was seen helping trash collectors load 15 bags onto the truck. Kathy’s murder was the first homicide case in Massachusetts successfully prosecuted without a body, after which her sister took over custody of her son.
Name Not Known
A 38-year-old female Equipment Operator was killed while compacting dirt in preparation for the hard surfacing of a highway off-ramp leading to an overpass bridge on a major South Carolina highway expansion project. She was operating a new compactor that had arrived at the site two only two days earlier. The compactor was “equipped with a rollover protective structure (ROPS), but no seatbelts. [She] was operating the compactor with the enclosed cab door open, back and forth over a built up road bed when she backed up near the edge and the earth under the rear tires gave way. When the compactor tipped over the embankment, the unrestrained” equipment operator “was partially thrown from the cab and pinned underneath the ROPS.” [NIOSH report]
NYC Port Authority Officer Kathy Mazza died while evacuating people from Tower One of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Her clear-headed decision to shoot out the glass in the lobby, enabled hundreds to exit more swiftly. Three percent of the Port Authority Police Department perished that day. Having earned a nursing degree before joining the PAPD, she rose through the ranks and became the first female commandant of the Training Academy, leading its emergency medical programs. The regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City named her the 1999 Basic Life Support Provider of the Year. Captain Kathy Mazza was the first female Port Authority Officer to be killed in the line of duty.
NYC Police Officer Moira Smith was the first officer to report the September 11th World Trade Center attack, when she witnessed the first plane hit and rushed to the site. Assigned to the 13th Precinct, Moira Smith had been a member of the New York City Police Department for thirteen years. She was killed while evacuating people from Tower Two, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives that day. A New York Daily News photographer captured an image of her helping an injured man out of the towers. After finding him medical assistance, she returned inside to continue with the evacuation. Survived by her husband, also a NYC police officer, and a two-year-old daughter, she was buried on what would have been her 39th birthday.
On September 11th, NYC Emergency Medical Technician Yamel Merino was among the first rescue workers to reach the World Trade Center site. She volunteered to enter the burning building. Born to Dominican immigrant parents, Yamel Merino earned her EMT certification at Westchester Community College where she received the Chancellor’s Award for scholastic excellence. She worked for MetroCare Ambulance of Westchester County, and was MetroCare’s EMT of the Year in 1999. She was survived by an eight-year-old son.
U.S. Army Private First Class LaVena Johnson of Florissant, MO, died five weeks into her tour of duty in Iraq. Although the army ruled LaVena Johnson’s death, a suicide, her parents believe that the army’s own evidence, and LaVena’s bubbly conversation with her mother the night before her death, dispute that finding. They believe she was raped, beaten, and murdered, and have been trying to re-open their daughter’s case, and to bring attention to sexual violence in the military.
Laborer Deborah Kane, a single mother of three, was a fifteen-year member of LIUNA Local 860, Cleveland, Ohio, when she was killed in a highway construction accident inside a work zone on the Valley View Bridge. She was struck by a truck delivering materials to the jobsite. Her death inspired Ohio State Rep. Kenny Yuko, a 30-year member of LIUNA Local 860, to sponsor a bill (HB27) that renamed that bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River and the Ohio Canal on I-480, the “Union Workers Memorial Bridge,” stating, “The sobering truth is union workers go to work every day not knowing if that day will bring injury or death. It’s an incredible sacrifice for them and the people who love and depend on them. This bill is a way for us to recognize those who gave so much for the development of this great state.” [suggestion, carpenter Rocky Hwasta]
Katharina (Kat) Engnell
Seattle electrician Katharina (Kat) Engnell was electrocuted while doing lighting maintenance up on a metal platform during the day shift at the Saint Gobain Containers glass plant. Before becoming an electrician she earned a master of fine arts degree and worked as a printmaker and newspaper pressman. “Kat was the most humble, hard working, serious electrician anyone ever worked with. She worked with a lot of Local 46 hands, and despite her qualities, she was laid off numerous times for being a 5’2″ woman with a couple of grey hairs. Diversity and full inclusion in the electrical industry were passions of hers. The fact that a scholarship for those seeking to become Union Trades people is being funded in her name testifies to that. Her interests included kayaking, raising hens, creating and teaching art, unionism, and rocking out to hippy music. She was a fantastic mechanic, intellectual, and a bohemian all in one. All who knew her can say that her kindness and generosity were boundless” [SPARKS, IBEW LU 46 newsletter].
Bianca Wisniewski Kuros
NYC Construction Safety Inspector Bianca Wisniewski Kuros began working as a Safety Coordinator for Total Safety on a JPMorgan Chase Manhattan construction site in 2007. The single parent of two daughters alleged, in a $20 million lawsuit filed July 2009 against elevator operator Steve Greco, Total Safety, JPMorgan Chase, and Greco’s Operating Engineers local, that the company ignored her complaints of lewd propositions and groping from Greco whenever she tried to ride the elevator—and then laid her off. She was set to give evidence in court on October 19, 2009, but died the day before in a two-alarm blaze that brought 110 firefighters to her apartment at 3am, and left her 16-year-old daughter in a coma for three days. Her 18-year-old daughter carried the lawsuit forward. To bring attention to the case in support of a settlement for the daughters, a group of NYC tradeswomen formed Justice for Bianca, an organization that networked nationally.
Joan R. Daley
The Administrative Line of Duty Death of NYC Firefighter Joan Daley was attributed to World Trade Center illness, the result of toxic exposures related to rescue and recovery efforts of first responders. Appointed to the FDNY in 1983, Joan Daley was assigned to Engine 63 in the Bronx. Joan Daley’s death, and the death and illnesses of other female FDNY firefighters are a reminder of the heroism of female first responders and recovery workers that went unacknowledged in media coverage of 9/11. While the New York Police Department includes deaths from World Trade Center Illness with other Line of Duty Deaths, the FDNY separates them as Administrative Line of Duty Deaths, a policy that is controversial among firefighters, and gives the false impression that no female firefighters died from the World Trade Center attacks. The FDNY had only 25 female firefighters on September 11, 2001.
Vanessa Downing was weeks away from completing her apprenticeship with Operating Engineers Local 302 and Heavy Equipment Mechanics Local 612, Seattle, WA, when she was killed aboard a construction barge on Seattle’s waterfront. Crouched over to weld—and in the crane operator’s blind spot—she was fatally struck in the head by the crane’s ballast when the crane turned. Admired and beloved across many communities––from Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, to the Washington State Apprenticeship Council––Vanessa Downing is remembered for her intelligence, hard work, and exemplary dedication as a worker and musician. She loved playing guitar, and sometimes opened for local bands. While going through her apprenticeship and moving from being homeless to homeowner, Vanessa remained close to the street community she’d been part of in Seattle’s University District, and brought others into successful careers in the trades.
Catherine A. Berliner
A Certified Repairman, Catherine Berliner of Laborers Local 148 had worked for five years at Amaren’s Labadie Power Station, a coal-fired power plant that was the largest in Missouri. She was knocked from the platform where she was performing maintenance on a boiler and killed in an 85-foot fall, when “the power hand tool she was using kicked back, struck her on the head.” [sources: CPWR, Laura Boatman, news accounts]
Leslie Smith Price
After graduating high school, Leslie Price attended Heavy Equipment Operator School in Beloit, KS, becoming their first female graduate. A 14-year member of Operating Engineers Local 101, she worked as a heavy equipment operator for contractors in Texas and Kansas. She also ran her own excavating company, Durt Wurx. She was working for Clarkson Construction on a project along US-69 near I-35, where she operated a loader, when she was fatally shot by her estranged husband, employed by the same company at another site, who then killed himself. She is survived by a son and daughter, Colt and Cheyenne [sources: CPWR, news accounts].
Fifty-four-year-old Construction Flagger, Linda Potter, of Price, Utah, was working the overnight shift (her preference) on a resurfacing project, directing traffic through a single lane construction zone, when she was stuck by a hit-and-run pickup-truck driver who was drunk and driving too fast for traffic conditions. According to state troopers, her body was carried roughly 250 feet by the driver who did not stop or slow down. She was the second employee of that same company to be fatally hit in 2 days. Her co-workers affirmed that Linda Potter took her job and job safety very seriously, and that she had done everything right. She was wearing her safety vest, had the road well-marked with a reflective stop sign and flag, and was standing under a bright construction light. [sources: CPWR, news accounts]
Construction worker Roxana Zelaya died from the traumatic injuries sustained when she became pinned between scaffolding and an overhead railing, while operating a lift platform in the underground loading dock area of the Leavey Science Center construction project at Georgetown University. She worked for Cleveland Construction Company, a sub-contractor of Whiting-Turner Construction.
Attributed to World Trade Center illness, NYC Firefighter Virginia Culkin-Spinelli’s Administrative Line of Duty Death resulted from cancer contracted from the 9/11 World Trade Center site, where she was a first responder and recovery worker. Appointed to the FDNY in September 1982, she was assigned to Engine 226 in Brooklyn and 329 in Queens.
Dump Truck Driver Carolyn Campbell of Bastrop, LA, was crushed to death while delivering a 5-ton load of number 7 rocks to the local high school’s baseball complex. She had “not opened the tailgate prior to raising the dump bed” and then was unable to lower it “because the load of rocks had all shifted upon raising the dump bed, and were resting against the tail gate, creating a counter-weight to the hydraulic system.” While trying to correct the problem she became caught in between the rear of the truck cab and the dump bed when “the tailgate opened and released the load of rock.” Her son, Jeffrey Lingefelt, said his mother’s occupation of nearly two decades was her passion. Her supervisor called her “a valuable employee who was held in high regard by all her co-workers.” [sources: OSHA, CPWR, Wes Helbing, news accounts]
Fifty-three-year-old Pamela Hunt, of West Wendover, Nevada had worked as a Heavy Equipment Operator for 13 years when she was fatally injured. Loved and respected by everyone who worked with her, she was proud of being a critical part of building the Galena Creek Bridge I-580 bypass, between Reno and Carson City. She was killed working highway construction on 1-80, between Wendover, Utah and Wells, Nevada, when she was pinned between a rubber wheel roller and another metal roller. [sources: CWPR, Mountain Home News]
Laborer Deea Lauritzen of Waterloo, ID, left her job as a manager at Burger King to work in construction. A five-year employee of the Stickfort Construction company, her crew was moving a sewage line for a new housing development of 24 building lots adjacent to a golf course, when a 10-feet-deep trench suddenly collapsed on her. It took firefighters three hours to dig her body out of the thick, sticky clay. [sources: CPWR, Laura Boatman, news accounts]
Kathleen (KC) Wilson
Highway Construction Foreman Kathleen (KC) Wilson “had a hand in constructing nearly every mile of the Southern Oregon Interstate 5 corridor. Any one that ever got to drive with her on that stretch of road would hear endless stories of her time and dedication to each project. She took great pride in her work and loved that she helped pave the way for countless travelers.” Knife River Corporation’s first female foreman, known for her “dedication to the safety and well-being of her crew,” she was killed on the shoulder of 1-5 near Wolf Creek, OR. Her pickup and arrow board trailer were stopped on the interstate’s right shoulder, with caution lights and flashers activated. She was taking down a portable sign on the other side of the guardrail, when a truck pulling a semi-trailer sideswiped her vehicle, pushing the trailer over the guardrail and into her. A self-taught musician who “could easily play any instrument placed in front of her,” she is survived by her husband of 24 years, five children, and nine grandchildren. [sources: CPWR, Laura Boatman, news accounts, obituary]
In 1981 Keyosha became the first woman accepted into Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 388, Lansing, Michigan. “She reveled in the challenges of working big construction [and] took the most pleasure and pride in her welding. She became a fixture in the women’s community in the Lansing area: a member of Feminists in the Skilled Trades (FIST); on the Board of the Lesbian Alliance; a partner in Bare Bone Studios for Women’s Art; a member of the Michfest Fever Crew providing Festival tickets for women who couldn’t afford them” [partner, Lyn Shafer]. Carpenter Chris McBride recollects: “We started in the trades together, when we were in our twenties. She survived as a pipefitter/welder for decades, until the work took its toll on her body. She had a lot of injuries and surgeries from the heavy work, including a knee and shoulder replacement which caused terrible pain. In October 2013, after years of relentless pain, and after pursuing every path unsuccessfully to get out of debilitating pain, Keyosha took her own life. She was 60 years old.”
Camera Assistant Sarah Jones of Atlanta, GA, was fatally hit by a train while working on the set of Midnight Rider, a biopic of Gregg Allman, The crew had not received permission to film on the train track. President Steven Poster, ASC of IATSE Local 600, International Cinematographers Guild described her as “a smart, talented camera assistant with an infectious personality and a promising career ahead of her.” Her mother spoke for her daughter and all workers when she asserted, “A dollar mark cannot be put on stealing a shot at the risk of someone’s life.”
A proud first-year apprentice in Carpenters 701, Outi Hicks was working at the Rio Bravo Fresno bio-mass fired power plant in Malaga, CA. She was removing scaffolding, when the delivery driver working for the same contractor fatally attacked her. The incident struck a deep chord among tradeswomen across the country, raising issues for the industry about skills needed by those responsible for site supervision. Scott Lewis, District Coordinator, UBC apprenticeship program: “She made us all believe in her. Very positive individual to change her life around and she was looking for the carpenters for a career for the rest of her life to take care of her boys” [Gene Haagenson]. She is survived by three young sons.
Last updated: Februry 4, 2018
Thanks to the many people who helped gather this history. If you have corrections or additions to this material, or personal recollections to add, please contact:
SUSAN EISENBERG, Director /ON EQUAL TERMS PROJECT / Women’s Studies Research Center/ Brandeis University — Mailstop 079 / 515 South Street /Waltham, MA 02454-9110 //or email OnEqualTerms@brandeis.edu