September 29, 2011

Autopsy: Sewer gases killed 2 men

By David Hench
Staff Writer

and Craig Crosby
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Maine's chief medical examiner has determined that two men whose bodies were pulled from a Kennebunkport sewage pump tank died from inhaling sewer gases.

click image to enlarge


click image to enlarge


Autopsies performed Wednesday on the bodies of Richard Kemp, 70, of Monmouth, and Winfield Studley, 58, of Windsor found they died from "hydrogen sulfide toxicity in a confined space with terminal inhalation of sewage," according to a news release from the Kennebunk- port Police Department.

Hydrogen sulfide is a toxic gas given off by bacteria present in sewage. Its effects are sudden in high concentrations, causing an inability to breathe, unconsciousness and death.

The men were working on a submersible pump in the tank at the Lodge at Turbots Creek. The concrete tank's floor is 9 feet below the ground, and its dimensions are 4 feet high by 5 feet wide by 6 feet long, accessed by a manhole.

The men were experienced workers who had installed and serviced sewer pumps across the state.

Neither was wearing any special breathing apparatus when their bodies were recovered, officials said. One of them was wearing a Tyvex suit.

Officials are awaiting a report from a private contractor hired to inspect the tank to determine what may have happened.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to review video and photographs taken inside the tank as investigators probe whether an equipment malfunction may have played a role in Tuesday's deaths.

Overflowing tank

When the bodies were discovered just after 11 a.m. Tuesday, the 1,000-gallon sewer pump tank they were inside was overflowing, even though it had just been pumped out less than an hour earlier.

That would suggest that waste water from the municipal sewer system somehow had flowed back into the private system serving the 26-room hotel where the men were working. The sewer district maintains a 6-inch sewer line that is under constant pressure because the sewage is pumped uphill from the base of Turbots Creek Road.

Kemp and Studley were experienced workers, men who knew the dangers posed by working inside enclosed spaces and with the gases that can accumulate there when sewage is present.

The men were employed by Stevens Electric and Pump Services of Monmouth, a firm with a good record that services sewage and water pump stations around the state. The men apparently were replacing the pump for that tank, but the one they had was the wrong size and they were waiting for a replacement to be delivered to the site, Kennebunk Police Chief Craig Sanford said.

There were no witnesses to the deaths. The men were outside the tank while it was being pumped by a separate contractor and were inside when he returned from dumping his load, 30 to 45 minutes later.

Kemp's friend Paul Fox, of Monmouth, believes Kemp and Studley somehow were flooded with water while down in the hole, that it was an accident and not the result of negligence or a failure to follow correct procedure.

"His daughter thought there was a flood of water," Fox said.

Karen Billups, an assistant area OSHA director, said she could not comment on specifics of the investigations until it is complete. She said the agency's investigator will be given a copy of the pictures taken inside the tank and the report prepared by a third-party investigator retained by the town.

Dangerous job

Working inside confined spaces is inherently dangerous, people in the industry say.

One of the major hazards of dealing with sewage is hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas that is a byproduct of bacteria that are dissolving organic matter without the presence of oxygen.

The gas has a rotten egg odor, but in high concentrations, people can quickly lose the ability to smell it, according to a fact sheet produced by OSHA.

(Continued on page 2)

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