WASHINGTON Sixteen American soldiers have died from accidental electrocutions in Iraq, the Defense Department said Friday, more than the military has previously disclosed.
Most of the 11 Army soldiers and five Marines died during their work, including making accidental contact with power lines or those killed while performing maintenance on electrical systems, the Pentagon said. But two died while in their living facilities, including at least one soldier who was electrocuted while he took a shower.
The disclosure came after KBR Inc. Chief Executive William Utt met with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on Capitol Hill Friday to discuss allegations that soldiers died from electrocutions caused by faulty wiring at U.S. facilities run by the contractor.
Earlier this month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said 13 Americans had died from electrocution in Iraq. Petraeus ordered a safety review of all facilities in Iraq occupied by U.S. troops and the Pentagon's inspector general is reviewing the deaths.
Casey said there have also been dozens of injuries and hundreds of fires from faulty electrical work and that there have been reports of problems with people being shocked as recently as three weeks ago. But Casey and Rep. Jason Altmire, D.-Pa., who also attended the meeting with KBR officials, said it remains unclear whether it is the military or the contractor that bears responsibility.
"It leads to hundreds and hundreds of questions that Congress must ask," Casey said.
Houston-based KBR has said it has not found a link between electrical work it did and the electrocutions. The company holds a multibillion dollar contract to provide basic services at thousands of buildings in Iraq.
In a statement, Utt reiterated that the company is not responsible for the deaths, and that it "remains committed to fully cooperating with the government on this issue." He also told Casey that a February 2007 change in the company's contract limited its duties for performing electrical maintenance and repairs.
At a hearing earlier this month, former KBR electricians said KBR employees with little electrical experience supervised work done by subcontractors and foreign electricians who could not speak English. Company electricians who raised doubts about the work were allegedly fired.
A list compiled by Casey's office details reports of electrocution deaths that included vehicles touching live wires, a solider killed while swimming and another who died while power-washing a Humvee. KBR told Casey Friday that it counted 15 electrocution deaths, basing its estimate on press reports.
The Pennsylvania lawmakers are involved because of the Jan. 2 death of Sgt. Ryan Maseth, of Pittsburgh, who was electrocuted while showering at barracks at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad, a facility overseen by KBR. An Army probe concluded the cause was improper grounding of an electric pump supplying water to the building. Maseth's mother has sued KBR in Pennsylvania.
KBR was awarded the contract in 2001 to provide housing, dining facilities, sanitation systems, showers and other services for U.S. troops deployed overseas. It eventually included U.S. installations in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
Utt told Casey that in February 2007, the contract was switched from "Level A" to "Level B." That meant the Army took primary responsibility for preventive repairs and that KBR "only repairs items the Army directs us to repair," KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said in an e-mail.
Earlier this year, the Army selected three contractors to provide food, shelter and other services to U.S. troops overseas in an effort to improve oversight and accountability on the country. KBR, Falls Church, Va.-based DynCorp International Inc. and Irving, Texas-based Fluor Corp. each received $5 billion contracts. The deal includes nine one-year options which could be worth up to $150 billion.
Casey said he planned to send letters to the Defense Department and KBR seeking more clarification on who was responsible for the electrical work. A hearing on the electrocutions is also scheduled for Wednesday in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Josh Holly, a Republican spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, said the Defense Department Inspector General's office is expecting to release an interim report in the coming weeks. A final report will be released by November detailing an analysis of the causes of the electrical shock, and future maintenance requirements.