In a 12-year span, an oil and gas worker died once every three months on average in Colorado, victims of a system focused more on protecting the industry than its employees.
On the morning he died, Matt Smith’s alarm clock rang at 2 a.m., and the 36-year-old former rodeo star dragged himself from bed.
Time to go to work.
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Surrounded by young men on his team at Halliburton, Smith was the veteran of the group. They called him Donkey because he smiled like the character in the movie “Shrek.” And he spent more time with them than he did his own family — one week logging 127 hours on the job, according to his time sheets.
But, by that subzero morning in November 2014, he had begun to dread his assigned job site near Mead, telling friends and family members of dangerous working conditions. He texted his girlfriend, Jennifer Palermo, almost daily with reports of explosions or other hazards.
“This is sh–- show central over by the barn,” he wrote in one such message. “You might see a fireball come from this way today lol.”
“Had a pump blow up,” he wrote in another. “Trying to find a replacement, found one but of course it leaks like a sieve. It’s always an adventure with these clowns lol.”
The dangers wore on Smith so much that he was thinking of quitting his job, Palermo said. But Smith also felt an obligation to the young guys on the team. They looked up to him.
“So many of the other crews had called in sick, or some companies had shut down altogether that day,” Palermo said. “But Matt wanted to be with his guys; they had a camaraderie they shared. He didn’t want to let them down.”
He was working beside them when he was killed.