TAMPA — The refueling boom in its metal-and-wood crate was massive. About 30-feet long, the boom and crate weighed up to 2,700 pounds as they sat on a MacDill Air Force Base loading dock.
Normally tucked into the back of a KC-135 aerial refueling jet, the $1.4 million boom was headed for maintenance.
But this was an extremely busy day and the boom was in the way. A truck needed the dock to make a pick up. So two MacDill workers prepared to move it.
What followed, an Air Force inquiry said, was an accident involving a seemingly simple task whose "familiarity obscured the risks involved." As the workers prepared to move the boom on dollies, it rolled off the loading dock, crushing and instantly killing one of the workers, Staff Sgt. Emily Elizabeth Clayburn, 29.
A 518-page report released Monday on the Air Force investigation of the Jan. 14 accident said base supervisors did not adequately recognize the dangers involved in moving heavy cargo on dollies on the edge of a loading dock. The report said three workers were needed for a task undertaken by two.
The report also noted that the warehouse was busy that day, handling the loading or unloading of 80 items — twice the number on an ordinary day but "with fewer personnel available."
The report of the accident board did not fault anyone for the tragedy. It instead offered an analysis of events contributing to the incident in hopes of preventing a reoccurrence.
Officials of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill declined to comment for this story.
According to the report, a commercial truck arrived at the warehouse about 2:50 p.m. That's when Clayburn and a second worker, a woman who was not identified, prepared to move the boom to make room.
The report said the second worker lifted the crate holding the boom using a forklift as Clayburn moved two metal dollies underneath each end. The forklift lowered the boom onto the dollies, and the workers locked the dollies' wheels.
Clayburn, who had been on the loading dock, walked down the stairs and stood below the boom and released the wheel brakes of a dolly on one side of the boom in preparation to move the heavy load, the report said. She walked to the dolly on the opposite end.
The truck driver, standing 30 feet away, saw what was unfolding. He yelled at her in warning. Clayburn seemed to hesitate. One side of the dolly rolled off the dock, the report said, as Clayburn reached up with her hands, perhaps to keep the load from hitting her.
The entire boom fell on top of her.
The truck driver ran over to lift it off her. But a champion weight lifter couldn't have budged it. The second worker on the forklift, a woman who was Clayburn's best friend, began screaming.
As personnel gathered, someone knelt down trying to comfort Clayburn, who was unconscious and unresponsive. The forklift was brought down, the report said, to try to lift the boom off Clayburn. But it was decided it couldn't be lifted without causing further injury, a witness said.
Emergency workers began arriving. About 10 people finally lifted the boom off Clayburn, who fell to one side motionless. CPR was administered but proved fruitless. Clayburn, who was single, was already dead, her spine severed.
Clayburn's best friend, meanwhile, was inside the warehouse. She had fainted.
MacDill officials gathered Clayburn's friends and co-workers in a room accompanied by a chaplain to break the news and comfort them. Officials, the report said, watched the scene for anyone taking pictures and worried about posts about the incident on Facebook.
At the end of an interview with one of Clayburn's co-workers a week after her death, the co-worker asked an investigator, "Do you know if she suffered any?"
The investigator said, "My best answer is almost certainly not."
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.