MIDDLETOWN — The oxygen level inside the manhole where a city worker was killed and three firefighters were overcome by mysterious fumes hasn’t risen at all in the past three days, city officials said Monday, May 10.
Oxygen measurements taken Monday were as low as they were during the tragic accident that killed 31-year-old Jabin Lakes on Friday, Law Director Les Landen said.
Police reported the oxygen level in the sewer pipe was close to 2 percent at that time.
“We don’t know at this point if the gas is just not moving out, or whether the supply is being fed from someplace,” Landen said. “This one is still a big mystery.”
Middletown’s police and fire divisions continue to investigate and monitor the scene of the accident at 2500 Yankee Road. Landen said the city is turning to some chemical specialists to aid in the investigation.
“The faster we can identify what’s in there, the faster we can move forward as far as what happened,” he said.
Richard Gilgrist, director of the Cincinnati office of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said representatives assisted responders Friday in the initial death investigation. Any number of substances could have displaced oxygen in the sewer, causing a person to become unconscious, he said.
Sewer workers have been felled by methane and hydrogen sulfide, among other gases.
Landen said tests run so far have ruled out “between 30 and 50 chemicals and gases,” including run-of-the-mill sewer gas. He could not say exactly which substances make up “sewer gas,” though he said one of the main components of the gas cocktail has not been registering on tests.
“There are occasions where you’ll get sewer gas that builds up in sanitary sewers, but that’s not the case here,” he said. “This one is pretty mysterious.”
Landen said the manhole cover is back on the sewer pipe, though it has been left partially open to prevent the gases from pressurizing. He said the source of the gases is still undetermined, adding any rumors at this point are “pure speculation.”
Investigators with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency gathered samples from the manhole Friday, and said they do not believe the gases to be byproducts of industrial operations.
Heather Lauer, spokeswoman for the agency, said their samples do not indicate the gas came from AK Steel’s Middletown Works nor are they the result of the failure of pollution control equipment or a violation of permit limitations by Air Products & Chemicals Inc. Both facilities are near where the fatal incident took place.
Since the fumes, which Lauer said reports indicate could be nitrogen, are not connected to any operations it currently regulates or permits, the agency has concluded its investigation. The Ohio EPA will remain in touch with the city officials and remain on hand if help is needed, Lauer said.
Meanwhile, two of the three firefighters injured while attempting to rescue Lakes from the manhole continue their recoveries.
Fire Capt. Todd Wissemeier, 44, was upgraded to fair condition at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton after being admitted to the intensive care unit in critical condition.
The 20-year fire department veteran had been listed in serious condition on Saturday. City officials said Monday in a news release that they remain “cautiously optimistic” about his recovery.
City officials also confirmed that Fire Marshal Bob Hess, 47, has been released from Atrium Medical Center and is recuperating at home.
A third firefighter, Thomas Allen, was treated and released from Atrium on Friday, according to police officials.
The firefighters were all overcome by the same fumes that incapacitated Lakes. They were not wearing a breathing apparatus during the rescue attempt because they thought they were responding to a fall and were unaware of the air-quality problems, police said.
Landen said a review of safety procedures for city employees would be part of the city’s review of the incident.
“That is an issue we have to look at,” he said. “What the proper procedures are and were they followed.”
The Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation Division of Safety and Hygiene oversees working conditions for state, county and municipal employees. A spokeswoman for that division couldn’t immediately say Monday whether a formal investigation is under way and what that could entail.
“We appreciate all members of the community who have come together to help deal with this tragedy,” Landen said. “Particularly helpful have been the volunteer police and fire chaplains who are continually available to us during times of need.”
Funeral arrangements for Lakes are through the Herr-Riggs Funeral Home in Middletown. A visitation is 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 12, at Grace Baptist Church in Middletown. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 13, at the church, located at 3023 N. Union Road. An account to assist the family has been set up at area Chase banks in the name of Lakes’ older daughter, Tomasina.
A makeshift memorial lay at the site of the tragic accident Monday. Amidst orange construction barrels and yellow police tape, a white vase of colorful flowers sat atop a cement block obstructing access to the manhole. At the base of the cement block lay a withered red rose, a yellow rose wrapped in plastic and a white cross with Jabin Lakes’ name written on it.