Employee killed at NC Zoo after falling during a training drill

An arborist working at the N.C. Zoo fell to his death during a rescue drill Thursday, an accident that marks the first employee death in the zoo’s 45-year history.

The scheduled drill killed a 10-year zoo employee at roughly 8 a.m., before any visitors had arrived. The zoo shut down its Africa section early Thursday morning and the rest of the park at 2 p.m. It will reopen Friday.

Zoo officials did not release the arborist’s name at the family’s request. The Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, the state Department of Labor and OSHA are investigating.

“Everyone at the zoo wishes to express our deepest condolences to the family, and that we are devastated by this loss,” zoo spokeswoman Debbie Fuchs said Thursday.

N.C. Labor Department spokesman Mary Katherine Revels said the worker fell from 20 to 30 feet during an aerial rescue drill. Such drills involve a trained arborist scaling a tree to simulate aiding an injured or trapped co-worker.

The tree care industry website reports 57 fatalities so far this year, 18 of them involving professionals, according to its website Dripline.net. Another 36 injuries have been reported so far in 2019.

In March, a tree climber in Georgia was killed after being struck while 50 feet high and left dangling in the air.

The Tree Care Industry Association offers an aerial rescue training program designed to meet OSHA requirements, its website said. The most common reason for tree care fatalities, it said, is failed rescue attempts.

The zoo opened in 1974 and has not had another fatality in that time.

Thursday’s drill was carried out at the recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting agency, Fuchs said. The zoo will offer grief counseling to its staff.

Last year, a lion escaped its enclosure and killed intern Alex Black at the Conservators Center on the Alamance-Caswell county line. The Conservators Center is not connected to the N.C. Zoo.

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.