Catawba plant burn victim thankful for “one more chance” at life

Herald columnistJuly 21, 2012 

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It started out as a normal working Saturday for Mitch Altman.

The 44-year-old left home in Rock Hill before 5:30 a.m. May 19 to get to the Resolute Forest Products paper mill near the Catawba River for the 6 a.m. shift.

Because it was so early to go the plant – still known as “Bowater” for the longtime owner’s name – Altman didn’t wake up his wife or his two young daughters to kiss them goodbye and say, “I love you.”

He almost never got another chance to ever kiss his family and tell them he loved them.

One of the last things Altman overheard before being loaded onto a helicopter headed to a hospital burn unit was a voice saying, “It looks like we are gonna have two fatalities.”

Altman knew then he was one of those two.

He and three others were burned after a caustic chemical – known to workers as “white liquor” – burst from a ruptured plumbing unit and burned Altman over 30 percent of his body.

Wayne Vinson – still in critical condition at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital of Augusta – was burned over 70 percent of his body. Two other workers were burned – thankfully, as Altman puts it, less severely.

“I wouldn’t want anybody to go through what I have gone through, and my friend Wayne is even worse,” said Altman.

Altman, when wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, looks almost like a regular guy – except for some burns on his face, hands, fingers.

Then he lifts his shirt.

His right arm is covered with skin grafts from burns. His left leg is as bad or worse. His stomach and back, more burns.

“I was going into that helicopter, and I was asking God to just give me one more chance,” Altman said. “And I have it. I am not going to waste it, either.”

Altman’s wife, Tennille, walks into the family living room with the tiny girls. Alexa, 3, and Avery, just 9 months old.

“Daddy!” Alexa yells.

Altman grabs that little girl with his burned and grafted arms and says, “I love you honey!”

He then reaches for the baby and says, “This is what life is about.”

The explosion

That Saturday morning, Altman was a supervisor on a fiber line that soaks wood chips into pulp using sodium hydroxide – that “white liquor” chemical. After soaking, the chips turn into a paper pulp the consistency of oatmeal.

That pulp is then used to make paper in the huge mill that has employed thousands of York County people for a half-century – including Altman’s father. Today, more than 600 people work at the mill, among them Tennille Altman, a chemical engineer.

The overnight shift had had some troubles, Altman said, including a pump that wound up pumping backward, so he conferred with other employees and maintenance people.

It was decided to close a valve completely, Altman said.

Wayne Vinson – whom Altman has known and worked with for about 15 years – and whose father worked with Altman there on that same fiber line, closed the valve, Altman said.

Altman, Vinson, and the two other workers who ended up burned were there. All wore hard hats and safety glasses along with standard work clothes, he said, which is normal for the job.

Four men from maintenance arrived, said they needed tools to work on the problem, and left to get them.

As the guys waited for them to return, Altman said, “I had my arm resting right on the valve.”

The men then noticed that the valve had a drip for just a moment, Altman said.

Then the plumbing exploded.

“The next thing you know, we were running for our lives,” Altman said.

The explosion of chemical was so powerful that it “looked like a fountain,” said Altman. “It felt like somebody was hitting me in the chest.”

After the explosion, Altman said, “we were all screaming.”

Altman grabbed one co-worker’s belt with one hand and another worker’s belt with the other and shoved them both away.

That’s when he saw his friend, Wayne Vinson, with but a tuft of hair left – “holding his hands up to the sky and screaming.”

The other two men had burns to their eyes, and one had a burned back, Altman said.

Other workers came running and rushed the men toward safety showers.

Altman ripped off his shirt – like pro wrestler Hulk Hogan used to do – but the slick slimy chemical that is so caustic made his pants slick.

“I was having trouble getting my pants off,” he remembered – and then nothing.

“Sometime along in there, I passed out.”

Altman regained consciousness in the arms of a co-worker who told him he had to get under the shower, but Altman had something else in mind.

“I was hollering, ‘Go get Wayne! I think he’s hurt bad!”

Emergency crews soon arrived to assist the company workers who had jumped in to help, company officials have said.

Officials for Resolute – called Bowater for so long before corporate changes turned it into AbitiBowater and then Resolute – continue to decline to discuss specifics of the incident other than confirming four people were hurt by the sodium hydroxide release.

York County officials, two days after the incident, confirmed a pipe burst, but have released no other details.

The job safety investigation being done by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials and state regulators is also incomplete. Resolute continues to offer those investigators any information that is needed, said Resolute spokeswoman Debbie Johnston.

But Mitch Altman knows something happened to that pipe and valve – the scars all over his body prove it.

Three weeks in hospital

The helicopter ride to the burn center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., took 28 minutes, Altman said.

During that time, “a million thoughts” raced through his mind – things he had not done or could have done better in his life and with his family.

“Things I shoulda done, and if I get out of this, I will,” Altman said.

In the emergency room of the hospital, Altman saw a big guy with bushy red hair who announced that he was a doctor. Altman could not believe this burly Irishman was anything but a lumberjack or a beer drinker.

“He sure didn’t look like what you expect a doctor to look like,” Altman said – but that doctor and the rest of the staff were great.

Altman, lying on a gurney, was pushed into a tunnel – “like a car wash for people” – in and out several times.

Soon afterward, his wife and in-laws and his youngest daughter were there, and Altman somehow pulled a cliché from his brain.

“I said to them, ‘Today, life has dealt me some lemons, but I’m gonna make lemonade out of it.’ ”

Then Altman asked his wife to call the plant to check on the people he supervised and the other victims.

That’s when he finally stopped and realized that he was burned over much of his body.

“I knew it was bad,” Altman said.

In those early days, Altman, a tough guy, refused a feeding tube and choked down what little nourishment he could.

Cards and visitors and well-wishes came in from co-workers and family – far more important to him than food.

“Nobody knows the value of that care, that love and those prayers – until it happens to you,” Altman said.

Resolute officials were in and out of the hospital, asking if he needed anything.

“They have been phenomenal,” Altman said.

Resolute paid for his family to stay in Winston-Salem and other expenses, he said.

Many of his days in the hospital, he made it through brutal scrubbings to get rid of damaged skin and other treatments.

One time – despite being on painkillers – Altman woke up to the sight and sound and feeling of his body being scrubbed by a nurse. He was prone and naked in a big tub, and his burned body looked like something from a horror movie.

The pain, he said, “there is no way to describe it.”

The nurse asked Altman if he could take 30 seconds more.

He gritted his teeth, thought of his family, and allowed that nurse to continue to scour him like a greasy frying pan.

After two weeks, the skin grafts started on his right arm and left leg. The skin came from his own thighs.

Throughout, Altman was so sick, so nauseous, that he had to fight to keep food in his stomach. But fight he did. He walked, too, as ordered, to stay as limber as possible and help his body avoid infections.

While in the burn center, Altman saw two other patients, burned worse than he, die.

His wife would update him about Wayne Vinson’s horrible injuries, reading aloud from the online Caring Bridge journal written by Vinson’s wife, Cynthia.

“I knew Wayne was worse than me and I wanted him somehow to know I was pulling for him,” Altman said.

After 19 days – far earlier than the weeks or even months that it was thought he would need to be hospitalized – Mitch Altman came home to Rock Hill.

Life now

Altman at first shielded his kids – he has a 21-year-old son, Brandon, along with the girls – from the extent of his injuries. He would get out of the shower, put on medicated lotions and keep everyone away.

“But then I realized that these are just scars, that they do not define who I am and the man I am,” Altman said. “My daughter would tell me daddy’s boo-boos hurt and he needs a purple popsicle to make it better.”

Altman is still going through physical therapy, and not long ago, he returned to light duty at the Resolute plant.

He said he is now closer to God, and he knows that the prayers of so many people helped him during his recovery.

On July 15, Altman spoke to a crowd at church, who sat in tears.

“Some of you know me, most of you do not, but I know all of you prayed for me,” Altman said. “You matter, and I thank you.”

Tennille Altman said her husband’s ordeal was “horrible,” but the family is so thankful he is still with them.

“We have our family,” she said when she came home from work Thursday with those kids, whom Altman reached out so quickly to hold.

Although Altman is far from healed, and can’t play his beloved golf yet, his mind remains on Wayne Vinson and the other burn victims – one of whom spent a few days at the Winston-Salem burn center.

“We are a band of brothers from that day,” said Altman, an Army veteran. “Not combat, but this was bad like it.”

Altman and Cynthia Vinson finally met on Tuesday, after both helped plan a blood drive at the Resolute plant that ultimately sent 103 units to the Augusta burn center where Wayne Vinson remains in a coma, fighting for his life.

“Cynthia and I hugged and it was just an awesome moment,” Altman said.

Meeting Altman, Cynthia Vinson said, and seeing his recovery so far has inspired her and will inspire her family, too.

“We were there at the blood drive, and we were so thankful for life,” she said.

When Altman talks about what happened to him in an incident that took just seconds but will last forever on his skin, he always makes sure to bring it around to his wife and three children.

“This makes me appreciate the small things,” Altman said.

Even though he is a tough guy who has endured such excruciating pain without tears, Altman starts to cry as he sits in that living room and looks at pictures of his family.

“Saying good night to my kids and reminding them how much I love them and always will,” he said, wiping away tears. “Putting them in bed and reading to them.”

As for his wife, Altman made a vow while in that helicopter and at the burn unit that he said he will keep as long as he lives.

“I will tell her how much I love her every day.”

Because there is no guarantee – when a husband and father leaves a home with an American flag flying out front, heading for work in a pickup with an American flag bumper sticker – that the next time the family sees him, he will be covered with bandages, lying in a burn center.

But alive.

“I want people to say it to somebody,” Altman said. “Tell them, ‘I love you.’ You don't know if you will get the chance again. I got that chance.

“Don’t wait.”

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Want to help?

Contact any Arrow Pointe Federal Credit Union branch to donate to individual funds set up for Mitch Altman, Wayne Vinson and the two other employees who were injured.

Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 adys@heraldonline.com

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