But on a late winter morning six months ago, the chance to see that future realized ended.
Roberts was killed Jan. 23 when he and three of his co-workers at the marina were working to repair an inoperable forklift and part of the machine fell and came crashing down on his head. Emergency workers rushed to the scene, but were unable to save Roberts and pronounced him dead on the scene, authorities said.
On Saturday, co-workers and management had a charity cardboard and duct tape boat race in Roberts’ honor, with proceeds set to go to his family.
The sudden accident led to a lengthy investigation and $7,700 in fines against the marina from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which noted a lack of safety precautions and employee training in the citation report released in June.
Despite OSHA’s findings, the accident has left Roberts’ family longing for more answers.
Miller said her brother wasn’t certified to drive a forklift, let alone perform maintenance on one, and she can’t understand why he was asked to take part in the job.
“Why would you tell him to do something like that?” she asked. “How could you not know it’s dangerous?”
Since January, Miller said she’s heard conflicting stories of exactly how and why the accident took place and has spent countless hours trying to reconstruct in her mind the events leading up to her brother’s death. But six months of phone calls have not yielded satisfactory answers, she said.
Ira Smith, general manager at Little River Marina, said he also has questions about the incident, but he hasn’t pressed his employees to explain.
“Those were some of his best friends working with him,” Smith said. “It’s not really something I can push for to get an answer. We’ve all been pretty devastated by it.”
Miller said she understands it’s difficult for her brother’s co-workers to talk about the scene they witnessed. She also wonders if they may be wary of telling the tale out of fear of jeopardizing their employer.
But without a clear explanation, Miller said the family can’t move on.
“There’s too many unanswered questions,” she said. “It’s like an open book. You can’t get to the next chapter, because you can’t finish this chapter.”
A better life found
The first chapter of Roberts’ story began 2,200 miles away from Little River Marina in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born in 1991 and lived with his five siblings before moving to Cherokee County 12 years ago. His sister said the family made the trek to north Georgia in search of a “better life” and “chasing a dream.”
Roberts found that better life in Woodstock, making fast friends with his classmates at Woodstock High School and setting records running on the school’s track team.
After high school, he was accepted to Kennesaw State University where he studied health science.
To help pay his way, he took a job with Little River Marina. There, Roberts fulfilled a catch-all, odds-and-ends job description, working in the marina’s supply store, doing maintenance and helping customers on and off their boats.
“There wasn’t really a job in this marina that he couldn’t do,” Smith said. “He was all in.”
Miller said for the most part, her brother enjoyed his work at the marina, and he quickly became close with his co-workers.
Smith said Roberts was one of the family, which has made his death much more difficult to handle for those left at the marina, especially those who witnessed the accident.
“A lot of people go their whole lives without having to see things like that,” he said. “These guys didn’t have that luxury.”
On the morning of Jan. 23, Smith said he and his employees met to look over the forklift and discuss the repairs they were to do that day.
“I walked through everything with them,” he said.
After the meeting, Smith said he left Roberts and the three others in the marina’s storage building where they were to install a new cylinder — the component that moves the forks up and down — on the machine, which had stopped working a few weeks before.
What happened next is not exactly clear.
Originally, Miller said she was told her brother was standing on the edge of the driver’s cabin on the side of the machine when part of it fell and hit him. More recently, she heard he had climbed on top of the forklift when the part fell.
“Then, I was told it happened so fast no one really knows,” she said. “In the blink of an eye it was done.”
Smith, who was across the street when the accident happened, said the most recent version of events Miller says she heard is the most accurate.
Smith said Roberts was killed when he climbed atop the driver’s compartment. The forks of the machine were chained up to keep them in place as the new part was installed, and Roberts climbed on the driver’s cage to hold the cylinder, Smith said.
“When they actuated one of the cylinders, it broke all the safety chains, and it came down,” Smith said. “He was standing there holding it.”
Smith said he asked Roberts to help with the repairs that day, but he isn’t sure if he was asked to climb the forklift and hold the part in place.
“I don’t think he was,” he said.
Whatever the reason Roberts chose to climb the machine, Smith acknowledged had there been a clear set of guidelines for him and the other workers, he may have known not to do it. “If we’d had a procedure down, maybe it would’ve been more clear to Josh or to anybody else working on the machine exactly what steps they were to take,” he said.
OSHA also noted the marina’s lack of protocol in its June 12 report.
“The employer did not establish a program consisting of an energy control procedure, employee training and periodic inspections,” the report states.
Smith said in the future, the marina likely will take a steps to avoid a similar tragedy and will contract out repairs on its machines, but not on the forklift Roberts died working on.
That forklift is heading for a junk yard, he said.
A memory left
After Roberts’ death, his family and friends did what many do when someone dear is taken away too soon: They lost themselves in planning events and trying to hold the memory close.
Today, the memory Roberts left behind can be seen in Miller, his co-workers at Little River Marina and many others he came in contact with in his brief 21 years of life.
On a late July day, Miller sat on the patio of a coffee shop in Woodstock and beamed as she told stories of her beloved brother and his peculiar but charming ways. The time he bought a typewriter and old-timey tobacco pipe and wrote feverishly through the night for no particular reason; the hopeful smile and jovial attitude he’d have in the mornings when he left for work; and the seemingly endless number of journal pages he left the family to read through. Miller said they’re all treasures to the family.
Roberts also left an impression at Woodstock High School.
Kirk Scharich, boys track and field co-head coach at the school, said Roberts was well-liked among his teammates and was a role model to many of the players. He said Roberts’ death hit the school hard.
“It was quite a shame,” Scharich said. “It was hard on all of the coaches. He was a hard worker, had a lot of talent.”
Smith said Roberts’ memory also lives on in a large way at Little River Marina.
“He’s always here,” Smith said. “You keep expecting to see him.”
Describing the death as “hands down” the most difficult trial in his own life, Smith said he and Roberts’ other co-workers had to attend therapy after the accident.
Marina staff also put up a small grave-stone-like monument for Roberts, and on Saturday, paid tribute to him with its second annual cardboard and duct tape boat race. The event was renamed this year as the “Josh Roberts Duct Tape Regatta.”
Smith said proceeds from the event will be deposited into the Josh Roberts Trust Fund, which the marina set up following Roberts’ death to help the family with expenses.
The fund previously helped the family pay for part of the funeral bill, Miller said.
Miller said all the events and gestures to honor her brother make her and the rest of her family proud and give them some comfort.
But the healing might take much, much longer.
“I know his life is gone, but it could’ve been avoided,” Miller said. “It could’ve been avoided.”