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City worker killed in manhole accident; 3 firefighters injured

Investigation will focus on fumes in Yankee Road manhole

Thomas Allen

MIDDLETOWN — Investigators are trying to unravel the mystery of how a routine check of a sanitary sewer line turned deadly Friday morning, May 7, when a city worker was killed and three firefighters were hospitalized after being overcome by unidentified fumes.

Jabin Lakes, a 31-year-old maintenance worker, was found dead at the bottom of a manhole in front of Air Products and Chemicals Inc. at 2500 Yankee Road. Lakes had opened the manhole around 8 a.m. to do some routine sewer line work when he apparently was overcome, police said.

Three Middletown firefighters who attempted to rescue Lakes from the hole also were overcome. Firefighters Todd Wissemeier, Thomas Allen and Bob Hess were transported to area hospitals. They were not wearing breathing apparatuses because they thought they were responding to a fall, said Middletown police Maj. Mark Hoffman.

Whether Lakes was killed by the fall or the fumes may not be known until Monday when an autopsy is performed by the Butler County Coroner’s Office.

Exactly what those fumes are remains a mystery, Hoffman said. Based on chemical tests conducted at the scene, the fumes may be nitrogen, a colorless, odorless gas, he said.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency will conduct its own investigation, he said.

“Something is in there and it’s displacing the oxygen, pushing it out of the hole,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said the source of the fumes is unknown and that Air Products could not be ruled out. Art George, spokesman for the company, said they are cooperating with authorities in the investigation.

Hoffman said the fumes present no risk to the public because the most potent concentrations were detected two feet below the surface of the street.

City worker's death is the first on the job in 71 years

It should have been just another day on the job for Jabin Lakes, a maintenance work with the city of Middletown.

Instead, it was his last.

Lakes, 31, was killed Friday, May 7, when he fell into a manhole he was inspecting on Yankee Road after apparently being overcome by fumes. Lakes, described as a hard worker who was “in love with his family,” had been on the job barely a year.

His was the first death of a city employee on the job since 1939, according to city records. A police officer died in an on-the-job auto accident.

“You just don’t expect that,” Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan said, fighting back tears. “It should have been just another day on the job, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.”

Though he’d never met Lakes, Mulligan said Friday’s tragic events “hit really close to home.” He said his heart goes out to Lakes’ wife, Katrina, and two daughters, Tomasina, 12, and Darrell-Anne, 4.

David Rogers, Lakes’ brother-in-law, said the family has been taking his death hard.

“It was very much unexpected and very much unwanted,” he said.

Routine inspection turns deadly

According to reports, Lakes and two co-workers were doing routine sanitary sewer line work about 8 a.m. Friday outside Air Products and Chemicals Inc. at 2500 Yankee Road. When Lakes opened a manhole and leaned over to do a visual inspection of the sewer line, he apparently suddenly lost consciousness and fell into the hole, city officials said.

Middletown police and firefighters responded to the scene and attempted to rescue Lakes.

Capt. Todd Wissemeier, 44, was lowered into the hole by a rope and apparently was quickly overcome by the same fumes believed to have incapacitated Lakes. Fire Marshal Bob Hess, 47, and firefighter Thomas Allen, 46, who were standing outside the hole, also began experiencing respiratory difficulty, city officials said.

Hess and Wissemeier were saved by Middletown police Officer Chris Alfrey, who was holding onto Hess’ belt at the time, Middletown police Maj. Mark Hoffman said.

Hoffman said the firefighters were not wearing a breathing apparatus because they thought they were responding to a fall and knew nothing about air-quality problems.

Wissemeier, a 20-year fire department veteran, was flown by medical helicopter to Miami Valley Hospital, where he remains in the intensive care unit.

Hess, a 19-year veteran, was listed in fair condition at Atrium Medical Center, where Allen was treated and released on Friday.

Fire Capt. Greg Justice praised the efforts of both Middletown crews and other local agencies in the rescue effort.

“They’re aggressive men. Very, very brave,” Justice said. “In more instances, they’ll take extraordinary measures to save somebody’s life.”

Mysterious fumes

Authorities are a still trying to determine exactly which type of gas caused Lakes and the firefighters to lose consciousness.

A chemist from AK Steel as well as Butler County’s hazardous materials team were brought in to test the air inside of the manhole estimated to be about 20 to 30 feet deep and 20 to 22 inches wide. Police cordoned off the area for several hours as a precaution while the threat level was being assessed.

Sensors placed in the manhole showed oxygen levels of less than 2 percent inside, Hoffman said. A normal level would be about 21 percent, he said.

“Something is in there and it’s displacing the oxygen, pushing it out of the hole,” Hoffman said. “The toxicity overcame someone outside of the manhole, which indicates whatever is in there is lighter than air or it’s under pressure and being forced out because of that.”

Because of the air quality concerns, rescue crews weren’t able to retrieve Lakes’ body from the hole until about 3 p.m. Friday when a rope was used to pull him out. No people were sent down into the manhole.

Hoffman said the unidentified fumes could be nitrogen — a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas — based on the tests that were conducted Friday.

The source of the fumes is also unknown. Hoffman said city crews checked the same manhole two to three weeks ago and there was no presence of nitrogen or any other dangerous gases.

Hoffman said he could not rule out nearby Air Products & Chemicals Inc. as a possible source. He noted that Lakes and the city workers were inspecting the sewer Friday because Air Products was interested in tapping into a main sewer line.

Art George, spokesman for the company, said they are cooperating with authorities’ investigation.

Air Products, based in Allentown, Pa., provides oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen to AK Steel’s Middletown Works. The plant continued normal operations Friday despite the incident.

“Our sympathy and concern go out to the family of the city worker and injured firefighters involved in the tragic incident, which took place outside our gate (Friday) in Middletown,” George said.

“We have worked with authorities through the day and continue to do so as they investigate this incident in an attempt to determine the cause.”

Police sealed off the manhole with cement blocks late Friday afternoon to keep anyone else from getting hurt. He noted the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency would be conducting its own investigation into the incident.

Proper procedures followed

Dick Gilgrist, area director of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, said agents were dispatched to the scene of the accident to “lend assistance.”

Gilgrist said OSHA initially heard the incident involved a private sector employee, but because Lakes, Wissemeier and Hess were all public employees, they are not under the organization’s jurisdiction.

“Since we already started out heading there, we decided to just continue on our way and lend assistance if we can,” Gilgrist said.

City Manager Judy Gilleland said Lakes and his two co-workers were following proper procedure at the time of the accident. They were attempting to visually inspect the line without going into the hole, she said.

“They were above ground the entire time,” Gilleland said.

Gilleland said her understanding was that Lakes was alone at the time he lost consciousness. One of his co-workers was at a city work truck and the other had walked away from the manhole to retrieve something from the truck when Lakes fell.

Should Lakes’ death be determined as a work-related incident, Gilleland said workers compensation would provide coverage to his family.

“It depends on what exactly was happening during the incident,” she said.

Gilleland said she was unsure whether firefighters violated procedure by not wearing breathing masks.

Friends and family mourn loss

Sharon Modlin, Lakes’ aunt, and her son, Chris Daley, drove from her home in Adams County and arrived at the scene shortly after her nephew’s body had been removed from the manhole. Holding a soft drink cup in one hand and a tissue in the other, she wept as she described her nephew as a man who “was funny and kind, who loved his children and coached soccer.

“He was a great person. He was a great dad and a good husband,” Modlin said. “We definitely need prayers. This is just devastating.”

Friends and community members gave an outpouring of support on the Journal’s website, leaving messages of encouragement and prayers.

Throughout the day, family and friends, many through the Middletown Youth Soccer organization where Lakes served on the board, and city officials have been expressing condolences and extending support to the family, one city worker dropping off buckets of fried chicken for the grieving family, said Rogers, Lakes’ brother-in-law.

The family was told about the incident shortly after it happened when a city chaplain and police official knocked on the door, saying there had been an accident and that it didn’t look good. The family later learned Lakes had died, and that his body remained down the manhole.

“That was the worst part,” Rogers said, “knowing that he was still down there, still holding out hope that maybe he didn’t die down there.”

Rogers said the death has been especially difficult for his sister Katrina, who was Lakes’ high school sweetheart and who has known her husband since they were fourth-graders at the former Jefferson Elementary School. Niece Tomasina, a 12-year-old Vail Middle School student, is devastated as well by her father’s death, Rogers said, and 4-year-old niece Darrell-Anne has been having trouble understanding what happened.

“She still asks ‘When’s Daddy coming home?” he said, and after Rogers and other family members explain that he is in heaven, “she asks ‘When’s Daddy coming home from heaven?’ ”

“He was definitely in love with his family,” Rogers said of Lakes, adding that he was a good husband and father who “really just enjoyed working with kids.”

This morning, Lakes had been planning to participate in the annual opening day parade to kick off the Middletown Youth Softball League season, and later in the day Rogers said he was to help his wife and another mother coach his younger daughter’s T-ball team.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Rogers said Lakes is survived by his mother and a brother serving the U.S. Army, who are both living in Alaska trying to get a flight back; his father, who flew in from Florida; as well as two sisters, a stepsister, two stepbrothers and numerous other relatives.

Staff writers Lauren Pack and Jen Roppel contributed to this report.