Toxic gas kills landfill workersby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Four men are dead, apparent victims of a toxic gas that collected in an underground pit at an industrial site near Superior, Wis. Officials think one man was overcome, and then three more died attempting a rescue.
Superior, Wis. — The victims include 41-year-old Paul Cossalter from Wrenshall, Minn., 47-year-old Tim Olson of rural Douglas County, Wis., and brothers, 44-year-old Joseph Kimmes and 40-year-old Scott Kimmes from the Superior area. The Kimmes brothers shared a business at the south end of Superior that includes a construction company, an asphalt business, and a demolition landfill.
Rescue squads were called to the landfill just before 6 p.m. Thursday evening. The four men were down and unresponsive in an underground pumping pit.
Superior Fire Chief Ted Matheson says the pit was about twenty feet deep, with a three-foot square cover at the top. One of the men had entered the pit by ladder to work on a faulty water pump at the bottom.
"It's a hole that probably collects some water from a construction site that's real close by," Matheson says. "What we're hearing is that a pump wasn't working and they were going to try to repair it."
Matheson says the sequence of events isn't clear, but it looks like each worker went in to rescue others.
"One person went down, was having trouble. Another person went down to rescue him and then another person went down and then another person went down," the fire chief says. "Then finally, there was people still up above, made the call to 911."
Using an electronic sensor, firefighters recorded hydrogen sulfide readings in the pit far above levels considered fatal. The gas is a common byproduct when things rot. Matheson says the gas has a strong, sewage-like smell.
"It smells like rotten eggs. I know schools do experiments and sometimes you'll smell that smell at a very low concentration, like .1 parts per million," Matheson says. "We had concentrations of 200 parts per million at the site. You took a couple of whiffs it could just knock you down right away."
Matheson says responders did not see any safety equipment with the victims like respirators or masks. He says Superior firefighters are trained to deal with this kind of emergency, although he says he doesn't recall it happening before.
"You hear of other instances like this in the country, you know, if it would be on a farm or some other industrial site. And maybe similar circumstances where a person goes down and another one goes in to rescue him. That's just a natural thing for someone to do, I believe. So, it has happened in the country before. Not here that I'm aware of," Matheson says.
According to Douglas County Sheriff Tom Dalbec, the landfill should hold mostly inert material.
"The demolition landfill is just that, a landfill for demolition materials: concrete; wood; structures that get tore down. That's where the materials are dumped," Dalbec says.
The sheriff says the investigation is now being turned over to the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An OSHA team was expected on the site this afternoon.
Dalbec says he knew both Kimmes brothers. Fire Chief Matheson says it's a tragedy for the community and for the victim's families.
"Our hearts go out to the families. This is a terrible tragedy that happened here," Matheson says. "I guess we did the best that we could as far as trying to rescue them. But, we do feel very terrible for the families."
The business was owned by four Kimmes brothers. Two survive.
- All Things Considered, 11/02/2007, 5:45 p.m.