Survivor of Catawba mill explosion still recovering a year later

Herald columnistMay 18, 2013 

— Wedged into the doorway of Wayne Vinson II’s house in Catawba, not five miles from the place where he worked for 16 years until a year ago today, there is an exercise bar.

It is the kind used for pull-ups to make muscles strong.

Vinson, 38, reaches blindly for the bar. He reaches blindly because he is blind.

He pulls himself up and eases down again, stretching the skin that came from other parts of his body and other people’s bodies and is different colors and shades and patterns.

If Vinson does not stretch, the skin will tighten. The scar tissue will toughen, the collagen will crack.

Vinson’s skin was destroyed when a pipe valve blew up in his face a year ago today, and the caustic solution inside burned almost 70 percent of his body.

Including his eyes.

Somehow, despite the nightmares and the fear of heat so visceral that he does not even like to be near the oven, Vinson does not complain. He does not yell out.

This tough and tender man who used to be an outside guy, who hunted and fished and rode bikes for 25 miles at a time on romantic rides with his wife, is now taking dance lessons. The shag, because Vinson is all South Carolina, and the shag is the state dance.

The Navy veteran stretches and dreams and dances, because he knows he probably should be dead.

“I’m alive – blind, but alive – and I’m not done getting better yet,” Vinson said in his first interview since the incident. “I got hurt, that’s all. I still have my family. I’m alive. I got a chance to do more in my life.”

Almost everybody who saw him a year ago was sure that today’s anniversary of the sodium hydroxide explosion at Resolute Forest Products, formerly Bowater, outside Rock Hill also would be the anniversary of Vinson’s death.

The valve burst on a line that carried a caustic chemical so strong, it turns wood chips into mush. Vinson was about 18 inches or so from the rupture, and within seconds, he was covered with the burning mush.

His hair burned off, and all he could do was scream. He screamed until there were no more screams left, then came to his senses, somewhat.

“I don’t remember much, but I remember crawling out,” Vinson recalled. “I was walking toward the shower and my eyesight, it was going by then. Everything was a blur.

“The last thing I saw was that green beacon light on the safety shower.”

The last thing Vinson remembers hearing was the sound of a four-wheeler rushing by.

“That meant help, and I knew I needed it,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘Hell, what am I gonna do now?’ ”

The explosion

Work started at 6 a.m. for Vinson and all the guys working that shift at the fiber line of the plant that day a year ago. Mitch Altman was the crew supervisor, and there were two other chemical guys like Vinson working. They wore hard hats and safety glasses and regular work clothes.

Maintenance crews knew the pump had not been working right, according to a state investigation of the incident and Vinson himself. The decision was made to close valves, and Vinson did that, pinching off the flow of the solution.

One valve blew up.

“It went in no time,” Vinson said. “We didn’t stand a chance.”

The two guys farthest from the rupture had some exposure. Altman suffered burns over 30 percent of his body. Mark Harrington was burned on 7 percent of his body.

But Vinson was closest. He took the direct force of the rupture.

Rescue workers immediately helped Vinson get his clothes off at the shower and rinsed his eyes with saline solution.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Who is gonna get the call, who is gonna hear how I got hurt and it is bad?” Vinson remembered.

What followed was a helicopter ride to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital of Augusta in Georgia, but Vinson remembers none of that.

That call Vinson wondered about went to his father, Wayne Vinson Sr., only because in 16 years at the plant, his son had never changed his emergency contact information to his wife of 10 years, Cynthia.

The father worked at the same Catawba plant for almost 30 years until retiring. He worked on the same line that exploded. He knew what that chemical could do.

“They told us it was bad and to meet him at the burn center,” Vinson Sr. said. “I called his wife.”

The family sped to Georgia, where they found a burned man who was unrecognizable.

Vinson weighed 204 pounds before the incident. He had been pumped so full of fluids in an attempt to save his life, that, by the time he was admitted to the burn center, he weighed 265 pounds.

The only part of him that could be seen was the opening for his eyes and mouth. The rest was covered with gauze.

All hoped, prayed, cried, prayed more, but Vinson was just burned so badly.

“It was terrible,” his father said.

Somehow, Wayne Vinson did not die.

He endured dozens of blood transfusions and surgeries. He endured skin transplants from cadavers and pigs. He endured so much pain, so much hurt, so much injury, that there were times when the doctors and nurses made sure that his family knew to stay close by the intensive care unit.

His time was short and could end at any moment.

Still Vinson refused to give up.

He was in a coma, induced by medication, for more than two months, but he never quit fighting to live.

“We saw patients pass away there,” his father said. “We were with families that lost them.”

Finally, in late July, Vinson woke up.

He was groggy, he was fuzzy, and he was alive.

“I wondered why everything was blurry,” Vinson said. “I was floating in and out, but I was there. “I wanted to see my wife, my kids, my family. I wanted to go home.”

The family, Vinson included, are certain that the weeks and months of cards, calls, visits and prayers – along with the dedication of the medical staff at the burn center – pulled him through.

“There is no doubt, none, that all of what people gave to me made a difference in me being here today,” Vinson said. “It was like people helped will me to live.”

Cynthia Vinson, a longtime teacher at Fort Mill High School, said she was “awestruck” by the amount of support from co-workers – hers and Wayne’s – churches, even total strangers.

Although doctors said Vinson would be hospitalized until at least November, he went home Aug. 14. His life since has been marked by doctor visits, rehabilitation, the love of his family – and a refusal to quit.

Even if he is legally blind.

Life without sight

The burns were so bad Vinson’s face had to be remade. He uses three different eye drops and has a problem dealing with too much light. His vision is 20-800.

That means he can see shapes just in front of his face, and that’s about it.

“About 6 inches in front of my left eye, maybe 3 to 6 inches for the right eye,” Vinson said. “I can sense the light, shadows, silhouettes.”

But he can’t see. He hasn’t seen his family – his daughter’s face, his wife’s smile, his son’s adolescence – for a year.

A home health aide comes to the Vinson home several hours a day while Cynthia Vinson is at work. Vinson’s parents take him to the doctor and to his therapy visits.

He has started to learn Braille, the system of raised dots that helps the blind and visually impaired read.

A stem cell transplant to restore his vision did not work. Stem cells act as a repair system for tissue. His mother and brother were not matches for stem cell donation because after so many blood transfusions, Vinson’s body chemistry had been altered forever.

He has had to deal with MRSA – Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterial infection – from the burns and skin problems.

There’s hope for some restored vision in a planned June 12 surgery in Ohio that would fit Vinson with man-made corneas over titanium sleeves. But that surgery is still an if.

It remains unclear whether Vinson’s body will be deemed able to withstand the antibiotic medications required for the surgery. If so, he will get the green light and might be able to see, see something.

If not, he might never see again.

Because his skin is so susceptible to cuts and abrasions, Vinson has to be careful at home. He uses a weighted cane when he goes anywhere, to feel for anything in his path.

Without being able to see, Vinson had to find something he could do with his wife. The bicycling that the couple had done for years was out.

One night, Vinson heard the country group Alabama singing about shagging on the boardwalk.

He decided to learn to dance.

“I never danced, not once, before,” he said.

Now Wayne and Cynthia Vinson take shag lessons twice a week.

“I don’t have to see to dance,” Vinson said. “I can hear and I can feel.”

The future

Uncountable times, Wayne Vinson asked why this terrible event happened to him. A friend who lost a husband to a disease said, plainly, “Bad things happen to good people.”

So Vinson marches on, even if he cannot see. He must take care of his body with acute care. His tiny daughter asks him, “Daddy, is it time for me to paint your back?”

Five-year-old Noelle helps out with the many-times-a-day application of lotion to the grafted skin on Daddy’s back.

Vinson said Resolute has been “incredible” in assisting him. The company paid for his family to stay at the burn center, helped with insurance and worker’s compensation benefits, and still is working with him.

“Tremendously helpful from the time it happened,” he said.

State and federal investigators spent months looking at the explosion of the valve, but issued no citations against Resolute. Regulators blamed a faulty valve for the explosion.

Vinson and two others who were burned have filed lawsuits against the valve manufacturer and the company that distributes the valves, claiming negligence and other wrongdoing, causing physical and financial harm.

In Vinson’s case, that harm is disfigurement and blindness.

But he hopes to get eyes back. He expects to see again.

And then, when he is better, Vinson will not sit idle.

“If I get my eyesight, I want to go back to work,” he said.

Before that though, Vinson wants to look at people in the community, even strangers from as far away as Australia, who have sent him wishes and prayers.

“I want to look people in the eye and thank them,” Vinson said.

But even before even that, Vinson wants to look at his family and smile at people who have smiled at him through so much pain.

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

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