Death on the Mountain

Ian Beal ended up a casualty of the effort to re-build in the wake of the Aspen Fire

Ian Michael Beal wanted to get off early from his job installing insulation on Mount Lemmon on Friday, Dec. 19, because he needed to pay for his tuition at Pima Community College.

But Ian never came down from the mountain.

The 23-year-old construction worker was killed just about noon, when he got crushed between the back of a freightliner box truck and a dying tree.

Ian had just started his job at Preston Insulation four days earlier, on Tuesday, Dec. 16. He had plenty of experience, having done insulation work since his teens with his dad, Michael Beal, himself a longtime insulation man. Michael once headed up Preston Insulation's Sierra Vista branch, until the sale of the business to a Florida company eliminated his job.

Ian had moved to Tucson from Sierra Vista one week before his death, to attend school and be closer to his girlfriend, Tina Paz. With just one more semester of classes before he finished his associate's degree, Ian then planned to move on to the UA.

"I can still hear his words that Thursday night," says Ian's mother, Debbie Beal, her voice thick as she chokes back a sob. "'Mom, I'm going to Pima. I'm not going to work 12-, 14-hour days. I finally know what I'm going to do. I'm going to finish my associate's and move to the UA and get my business degree.' I can still hear his words."

Debbie's grief is raw as she talks about her son in her parents' home near Grande Avenue and Congress Street. Two wooden crosses bearing Ian's name, made by his father, rest on the coffee table alongside a photo album she's put together since his death.

"He was very laid-back," she says, remembering how her son loved sports and collected DVDs, CDs and jerseys. "He always had to have matching hats with his jerseys. Michael Vick was his favorite player."

Debbie pauses, collects herself, then recalls how Tina had given her son Vick's Falcons jersey. "That's what he buried him in," she says. "We didn't want to bury him in a suit. That wasn't Ian."

Ian's grandfather, Hector Morales, a onetime member of the Tucson City Council, says Ian was a "total person."

"He had a well-rounded personality," he says. "On the one hand, as Debbie said, he was laid back; he enjoyed a good time, loved going to UA games, but when it came to his work, he was a professional."

It was Hector who first got word of trouble on that terrible Friday afternoon, when Florence Bramlett from Preston Insulation called looking for Ian's parents. He directed her to Debbie's Sierra Vista home.

Debbie recalls that Bramlett, who didn't return a phone call from the Weekly, told her Ian had been hit by a truck, but she didn't know how badly he'd been hurt. Debbie immediately called the Pima County Sheriff's Department, where officers also told her they couldn't discuss Ian's condition. Instead, they suggested she call University Medical Center.

It was just the start of a runaround. As the family repeatedly called the sheriff's department, they were directed to other agencies, including 911 and the state Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, other family members fanned out to local hospitals to see if they could find Ian.

Unable to learn what had happened to their son, Debbie and Michael started driving to Tucson. Finally, they reached a nurse at UMC who said she couldn't talk about Ian's condition, but that a deputy was waiting to speak with them.

"We didn't say anything," Debbie says. "From that point on, nothing was said until we got to UMC. There was dead silence. I think we kind of knew."

A deputy met the Beals at the door to UMC and led them to a room where other family members were waiting. Then he left the room without breaking the bad news.

The delay was the final straw for Michael, who tracked down the deputy at a nurses' station and demanded to know what had happened to his son. Told that Ian had been killed, Michael collapsed.

Once they had recovered from the shock of the news, the family asked to see Ian's body. They were told that there was no viewing at the Pima County morgue, so they'd have to wait until they had him transferred to a funeral home.

That weekend, the family traveled up the mountain to view the spot where Ian had died. Debbie and Hector say the job site was treacherous, with the 24-foot box truck forced to go up a narrow dirt road that had a steep hill on one side and a precarious drop on the other.

"It's a monster truck to get up into that space, and they couldn't turn the truck around," says Hector.

Because crew couldn't turn the truck around, Ian's 20-year-old co-worker, James Overholt, got into the driver's seat to back the truck down the hill. In the tightest spot, Overholt had to maneuver the truck between two trees.

Overholt told deputies that Ian was helping direct the truck down the hill. Overholt was paying attention to another worker when he heard worried shouts telling him to pull forward, because Ian had become stuck between the back bumper of the truck and a tree. When he shifted into first gear, the truck slipped backwards on the slope and crushed Ian's chest, killing him instantly.

Overholt told deputies he'd never driven the truck before that week, but said that he felt comfortable behind the wheel. He denied drinking or taking drugs that day and agreed to a blood test, although he said it could come back positive because he had smoked marijuana a week earlier.

Overholt faced charges of reckless driving and DUI in Oro Valley last year. He pleaded guilty to the reckless driving, and the DUI charge was dismissed.

Debbie can't understand how anyone could have thought it safe to take the truck up to the job site. She can't understand why such an inexperienced driver was trying to back down the hill. She can't understand why the workers didn't cut down the dying tree that Ian ended up crushed against. She can't understand how her son wound up dead four days after starting a new job.

And she can't understand why nobody seems interested in investigating the incident. The sheriff's department quickly determined it was an accident and told Debbie that further investigation would be done by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration--which took 11 days to send someone to investigate the job site. Now, OSHA staffers tell her that some elements of the case fall under the jurisdiction of the sheriff's department.

"We have a lot of frustration and anger," Debbie says.

Hector blames the rush to re-build the cabins on Mount Lemmon for the decision to put two young workers in an unsafe environment without experienced supervision. He says Ian's death has been "a terrible blow to the family. He was so young, with his whole life ahead of him."

Hector remembers that he thought about telling Ian not to go to work on Friday, because the previous day, he had ended up working so late that he couldn't pay his tuition.

"I felt like telling Ian, 'Forget about going to work on Friday. Go to Pima and finish your registration,'" Hector says. "I wish to God I had."