Widow: Response to York Co. plant death was inadequate

dworthington@heraldonline.comJanuary 29, 2013 

A contract worker recently killed at the Resolute Forest Products plant in southeastern York County could have been saved had emergency crews reacted quickly, says the attorney representing the family.

Samir Storey, 39, died Jan. 22 while cleaning a “fume” tank at the Catawba plant. A “clear, cloudy smoke,” entered the tank, said his cousin, Jermel Storey, who also was working on the job. The smoke triggered emergency alarms, trapping Samir in the tank.

“My cousin screamed,” Jermel said Tuesday. “Nobody helped. It was like nothing ever happened.”

Cotton Howell, director of York County emergency management, disputes the family’s claim.

He said crews from the county and the plant “followed safety procedures to the T.”

Howell said emergency personnel were not sent into the tank until they knew what they were dealing with.

“Nothing was done until it could be done safely,” he said.

Jessica Storey, Samir’ widow, Jermel, and attorney Christopher Chestnut held a news conference in Charlotte on Tuesday to tell their story.

Chestnut presented a series of concerns he said need to be answered for the family, for those who work at the plant and the surrounding community.

He said his firm is “aggressively” investigating the accident and a lawsuit is likely. As of Tuesday no suit had been filed.

Questions need to be answered, Chestnut said, because “people continue to get hurt at the plant.” He asked if Resolute was putting profits ahead of its workers.

In 2012, there were two accidents involving workers who were exposed to a toxic chemical mix called “white liquor.” In one accident, employees suffered second- and third-degree burns. In 2000, an explosion at the plant killed two contract welders connecting pipes to an outdoor tank. Several other workers were injured.

Resolute Forest Products declined Tuesday to comment on specific questions raised by Chestnut, or the family. Resolute spokeswoman Debbie Johnston said the company is assisting with the investigation of what she called “an unfortunate accident.”

The cause of the accident has not been determined and Samir Storey’s autopsy has not been completed, officials said Tuesday.

Johnston said she understood that this is a difficult time for the Storey family and others affected by the accident “and our thoughts are with them.”

Chestnut and Jermel Storey questioned the training and the safety equipment given to workers cleaning the tank at the Resolute plant. The Storeys were contract employees with Tradesmen International, a construction labor support company with offices in Charlotte.

Jermel Story said he and his cousin Samir went to the plant about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 21 for a safety lecture and 15-minute video. He said the instructor gave them the questions – and the answers – to the safety test.

The workers returned 12 hours later, Jermel said, for a series of 60-second tests with the safety equipment. A bag was put over their head and a chemical released into the bag.

“We were told if something tasted like candy we were to tell them,” Jermel said.

Jermel said on the second test he “tasted candy.” The instructor looked at his goggles and proceeded with another test, he said.

Chestnut asked if the “fume” tank which stored an odorless chemical had emergency relief valves for situations like this. If the tank had valves he asked why they were not used. If the tank doesn’t have valves that could be a bigger problem, he said.

Chestnut and the family also asked why Jessica Storey was “harassed” when she arrived at the plant the day of the accident. Jermel called Jessica shortly after the accident happened. She drove from Indian Trail, N.C., to the Catawba plant.

Jessica Storey said the gate was opened but she couldn’t find the accident site. When she went back to the gate, she said a guard threatened to have her arrested for trespassing.

She said she told the guard he could do what he had to, but she was there to save her husband.

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Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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