Wind machine accident kills Wonderful Citrus worker in Tulare County orchard

Richard Escobedo, 53, of the Ivanhoe area, died Jan. 3 when he was struck by a wind machine blade in a citrus orchard.
Richard Escobedo, 53, of the Ivanhoe area, died Jan. 3 when he was struck by a wind machine blade in a citrus orchard.

An employee of the largest citrus grower in the country has died in Tulare County after a 600-pound blade from a wind machine came off in an industrial accident and hit him.

The victim was identified as Richard Escobedo, 53, a resident of the Ivanhoe area.

He was employed by Wonderful Citrus, a division of The Wonderful Company owned by entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick, reportedly the biggest farmers in the United States.

About 8:30 a.m. Jan. 3, the Tulare County Fire Department was called to a citrus orchard at Road 172 and Avenue 376 northeast of Visalia.

Escobedo, who was badly injured but conscious, was transported by ambulance to Stone Corral Elementary School, the nearest helicopter landing zone. He was airlifted to Kaweah Delta Medical Center, where he later died.

He died of “multiple blunt force trauma,” the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office said.

Escobedo’s brother, George Escobedo of Visalia, said he was told his brother was in the process of shutting down the wind machine when something went wrong.

“It vibrated real bad; the propeller came off,” he said. “He tried to run” to avoid being hit by the falling blade but it struck him, he added.

“There were no external injuries, all internal,” George Escobedo said.

Escobedo was alone at the time. A fellow employee went looking for him and found him on the ground. Escobedo told him to call 911 and his boss at the company.

Escobedo grew up in Woodlake and graduated from Woodlake High. He was one of eight children, six boys and two girls. He had worked at Wonderful since 2012.

He is survived by wife Edith, son Jacob and stepson Cesar.

His wife, a Mexican national, was in Mexico when the tragedy occurred. In a sign of the time, she is having trouble getting back into the country. A lawyer for The Wonderful Company has been helping them navigate the system, for which the family is grateful, George Escobedo said.

The Wonderful Company is investigating what caused the blade to come off the wind machine. Wind machines — large propellers mounted on posts — circulate warmer air into orchards on freezing nights.

“We are deeply saddened to report that last week one of our employees died of injuries sustained following a tragic accident at our Northern Farming Operations in Visalia,” the company said in a statement. “He was immediately rushed to the hospital, but later succumbed to his injuries.

“We are a family owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to his family. Our thoughts are with them, and his colleagues.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our employees, and we will use every resource at our disposal to determine what caused this accident and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that it does not happen again.”

Cal/OSHA, which investigates industrial accidents, said it has “opened an inspection to determine the cause of the incident and correct violations of workplace safety regulations.” The company was cited in 2016 for two accidents and one complaint, Cal/OSHA said.

Wonderful Citrus, formerly Paramount Citrus, markets the Halos brand of seedless mandarin oranges.

According to the The Wonderful Company’s website, “The Wonderful Company’s diverse holdings make it the world’s largest grower of tree nuts, America’s largest citrus grower, and the world’s largest flower delivery service with the Teleflora network of florists.”

The company also owns Fiji bottled water, Pom Wonderful, Wonderful Pistachios, Justin Vineyards and Landmark Vineyards.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold