Shoreline city officials launched a difficult overnight operation to try to recover the bodies of two sewer-repair workers buried Monday in a collapsed trench dug into a slope.

Despite evening rain, the effort was making progress as of 8 p.m. Tuesday, said Shoreline Fire Department spokesperson Michelle Pidduck. She said the team brought a crane into position, and city workers managed to remove a stuck excavator used by sewer contractors. The next step was to lower protective steel boxes, so the recovery specialists could maneuver into the spot where a sewer-repair worker in his 60s, and another in his 30s, were trapped.

Family members, “grieving heavily,” were arriving to keep vigil nearby, but not within sight of the overnight work, she said.

The men killed in the collapse have not been publicly identified. Pidduck said at the request of their families, the city would keep their names private until formal findings by the King County Medical Examiner.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries sent investigators to the site, and will likely take about six months to publish its report and, if warranted, any possible penalties, a spokesperson said.

The house where work on a side sewer was being done is in the 600 block of Northwest 163rd Street, abutting a wooded ravine south of Shoreview Park and Shoreline Community College.

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Two workers were inside the large trench Monday afternoon, and two were on the ground above, when a huge amount of soil rapidly fell, said Shoreline Fire Chief Matt Cowan.

The slope is so unstable, with multiple layers, that a soil engineer who studied it Tuesday confirmed barriers were needed for recovery crews to do their job, Pidduck said.

The homeowner and contractor obtained a permit from the City of Shoreline last week to “replace part of collapsed side sewer on private property,” a city online record shows.

The side sewer extends from a private home to a public sewer main shared with neighbors. Homeowners are financially responsible for maintaining the side sewer.

The repair trench was approximately 25 feet long by 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep, said Pidduck.

Shoreline staff are investigating why contractors would make a 20-foot-wide trench to reach a much smaller pipe, along with the historical question of why the side sewer was built behind them in a wooded slope. “We don’t know yet why it was quite like that. This isn’t typical,” said Eric Bratton, a city spokesperson.

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The side sewer and neighborhood main lead to a pipe below Northwest Innis Arden Way that winds downhill to the Hidden Lake pump station, he said. From there, the effluent goes into King County’s Brightwater system to be treated and poured into Puget Sound at Woodway.

Because contractors were fixing existing infrastructure on private property, the June 30 work permit was a simple “over-the-counter transaction” that didn’t require work diagrams and safety plans, Bratton said.

The house remains habitable despite the soil collapse behind it, he said.

State law requires protection for any trench deeper than 4 feet — for instance, by shoring the side with barrier panels or by terracing the ground to eliminate steep soil walls.

First responders located a panel that buckled with the soil, Pidduck said. The trench appeared too wide for crews to use the struts that construction teams typically place between trench panels for added support, she said.

L&I spokesperson Tim Church said the agency was unlikely to discuss the safety measures until the report is done.

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The sewer repair contractor was Peacefield Construction, according to L&I and a Shoreline city listing. The company started doing business in 2012 and is based just outside South Seattle city limits, under principal David Ameh, a state business license record shows.

A representative of Peacefield couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

In 2014, L&I assessed Peacefield $2,400 in fines for “an employer working in an un-shored trench” 8-feet-deep along Ambaum Boulevard Southwest in Burien, which would expose employees to danger in case of a rescue attempt; and for lacking a tailored accident-prevention program during that job.

The second citation, in October 2019, accused the company of failing to provide a ladder, ramp or other escape within 25 feet of workers in a trench 10½ feet deep and 150 feet long in a residential part of Federal Way near Wild Waves water park. L&I said the site lacked a safe way for co-workers to enter or leave the trench “while watching the owner work in the trench from above ground” in the event they had to rescue the owner during a collapse. Peacefield fixed the problem and was fined $3,600, the citation notice says.

Nationally, trench collapses claimed at least 190 lives from 2011 to 2019, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The neighborhood in Shoreline sits among naturally wet soils, close to Boeing Creek and two parks providing a green refuge for birds and people.

As a result of snow and rainstorms in January 1997, a 100-foot wide sinkhole devoured a parked car and utility pole on the far side of the ravine, where Northwest 175th Street meets Sixth Avenue Northwest. Vice President Al Gore inspected the sinkhole while touring weather damage in the West.

“The whole area, it’s gullies and valleys, and subject to some shifting. It’s something we’re always concerned about,” Bratton said.

Tuesday night’s recovery plan called for a bottomless large box to be lowered and surround the fallen workers, so a responder and vacuum hoses could carefully remove soil without triggering a secondary dirt collapse. Then a smaller box was to be lowered within. The bodies could be placed in harnesses and lifted onto stretchers, Pidduck explained. The city arranged for a construction company to provide machinery, shoring devices and operators, she said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Esmy Jimenez contributed to this report.