A Place to Fit In

Imagine you’re a disabled vet and found a job you love where you can make an above-average wage in an economically depressed part of your state. You’ve married the person of your dreams and are beginning to put your life together to where things are finally comfortable. Your spouse works there too, and the future looks brighter than it has for a number of difficult years. Now imagine losing that job after doing the right thing by reporting dangerous OSHA violations to the government so that they might be corrected to prevent future tragedy. That’s what happened to Trey Peterson while working at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in North Carolina, and it understandably crushed him.

Trey and his wife, Deborah, in happier days. Image provided by Trey Peterson

By all accounts, before the February 2021 incident, table game dealer and fellow disabled Army veteran Trey Peterson was a model employee. In each of his five years with Harrah’s Cherokee Resort, he ranked in the top 1% among  3,500  coworkers. Peterson was never written up for any reason and received regular performance-based bonuses. Trey loved his job so much that he rarely took a day away from the tables. What paid time off he didn’t use, he donated so that others in need could make use of it. To me, that’s going above and beyond.

I talked to Trey at length the other night about his journey, and he was quite sincere and open. After being discharged from the Army with PTSD, he fell on hard times and, for a short while, even found himself homeless. However, when he landed his position with the casino, all that changed; there, he found the sense of purpose and camaraderie he was lacking. “I finally found a place I really belonged,” he said, his voice bright with enthusiasm. That send of purpose and belonging is something many returning combat veterans lack at first. They are lucky to find it. Some, unfortunately, never do. To Trey, his customers were his family, and he treated them as such.

In the Army, we have a saying; “If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re 15 minutes early, you’re probably on time.” Staying true to this, Trey told me of how he’d be sure to be at work early every day, even though he had to drive an hour to get there.

The Alarm

As soldiers, we are trained to follow protocols and know the plan, especially regarding potential emergencies. Things can go sideways at any time without warning. It was around 30 minutes to midnight on the evening of February 7, 2021. The scream of an emergency alarm could be heard above the din of the gaming floor. A voice came over the public address system ordering all players and workers to evacuate. Trey didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a malfunction in a boiler plant, and it was releasing dangerous volumes of steam under high pressure. There was a real danger of a significant explosion due to the rapid energy transfer phenomenon and gas leaks.

Incidentally, when I was working in healthcare after my service, a similar event happened in my hospital, and the gentleman working on the steam line died from his injuries. Suffice it to say such things are true emergencies.

As Peterson prepared to evacuate, his supervisor told him to stand fast and keep dealing. Eventually, hundreds of employees and guests were evacuated to safety through the casino’s front doors. What was supposed to happen was that employees were to be able to escape through a dedicated employee exit. However, that exit had been blocked and inaccessible for a number of years as a result of construction on the casino grounds. In addition, proper evacuation plans had not been updated in a timely manner, and posted evacuation maps were dangerously outdated.

Some guests and staff sheltered in place, and some evacuated outdoors. Fortunately, in this case, no one was injured. But, if the nature of the emergency had been different, the outcome could have been catastrophic. After things had returned to normal, Peterson sat down with his manager and voiced his concerns. The manager saw no issues with the event or that the fire exit doors were blocked. This indifferent attitude and inaction drove Peterson to become a whistleblower and file an OSHA complaint against the casino.