Body of missing trucker found in lettuce trailer

| 2/1/2007

Authorities believe a truck driver was crushed to death between pallets of lettuce that were being loaded by a forklift operator. Her body was transported with the product from Arizona to Iowa this week.

Truck driver Sheila Ross went missing Saturday, Jan. 27, after she and her husband stopped to pick up a load at the Dole Food Company plant in Yuma, AZ.

On Tuesday morning, Jan. 30, a dock worker at a Hy-Vee distribution center in Chariton, IA, opened a trailer and found the body of a woman matching Ross' description amid pallets of lettuce.

Results of an autopsy released Wednesday afternoon showed the body was Ross and that she died shortly after the accident from compression asphyxiation, said Ron Rodriguez, an officer with the Yuma Police Department.

Rodriguez said Dane Ross, Sheila's husband, last saw her when she left their truck at about 9:30 p.m. Saturday to finalize paperwork before leaving the Dole plant in Yuma. Police believe Ross was walking in the loading area and was pinned between lettuce boxes being loaded by a forklift, he said.

Ross, a resident of McLoud, OK, never presented paperwork to Dole employees, Rodriguez said.

Before investigators ruled out foul play on Wednesday, police interviewed drivers, Ross' family and her husband, Dane.

"There have been absolutely no red flags going up with anybody we've talked to," Rodriguez said.

The autopsy showed Ross died from compression asphyxiation from being pressed by the pallets, according to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

Debbie Dyer, public information officer for the Lucas County, IA, Sheriff's Department, told Land Line that Ross' autopsy performed Wednesday confirmed her identity and the time and reason for her injuries.

Yuma Police received a crash course education in trucking and loading dock operations, Rodriguez said.

"It was just kind of a freak thing," Rodriguez said. "It's pretty hectic on those loading docks. They pack those things pretty tight."

Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA's regulatory affairs specialist, said loading docks can be among the most dangerous situations truckers are placed.

Large producers like Dole use forklifts that can load two pallets at a time with each pallet stacked as high as seven feet, preventing forklift operators from seeing directly in front of them, Rajkovacz said.

Rajkovacz spent nearly 20 years as a driver and says he spent many hours parked at the Dole plant in Yuma waiting for produce loads. Dozens of trailers are parked in loading bays at a time at the Dole plant while several forklift operators load trucks and other forklifts stage loads for later pickups, Rajkovacz said.

When Dole employees begin loading the trucks, drivers usually leave their cabs and watch loaders to count pallets from yellow circles painted onto the dock that are designated as safe for drivers.

"It can be a madhouse - I've been standing in the circle and been shoved by pallets coming into my backside," Rajkovacz said. "They can't see where I'm at."

Ross may have been surprised by a forklift making a quick turn into a loading bay, Rajkovacz said.

"The (forklifts) move a lot faster than someone can walk," he said.

Police interviewed the forklift operator and said he has been cleared of wrongdoing, according to Clint Norred, a spokesman for the Yuma Police Department.

"She was in the loading zone and she was accidentally pushed into the load of another truck by the forklift," Norred said. "I don't think she was in the right spot – I don't think (truckers) are supposed to be in the loading area."

Arizona is one of 26 states or territories that operates its own workplace safety agency and doesn't defer to the Occupational & Safety Health Administration.

Instead, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health is interviewing Dole employees in its investigation of Ross' death, said Darin Perkins, an agency spokesman.

"We're looking to find out what happened and secondly, if there were any violations of the OSHA standards that might have contributed to the death," Perkins said.

Ross and her husband were a driving team, and Sheila Ross was last seen by her husband as she exited the truck to complete paperwork before leaving with a load from Dole, Dyer said.

Officials at Hy-Vee and Dole agreed to destroy lettuce in the trailer where Ross died, said Chris Friesleben, spokesman for Hy-Vee.

"It was a very tragic set of circumstances," Friesleben said. "Certainly our condolences go out to the family."

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer