York copes with deaths

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
March 13, 2001
YORK, Ala. While a community deals with tragedy, officials here continue to investigate the apparent work-related deaths of three city employees and the injury of another.
The three men died of asphyxiation after inhaling toxic methane gas fumes while working on a sewer line in a manhole on Fourth Street, commonly known as Highway 11, according to local officials. The men were working in the manhole about 5 p.m. Thursday.
Arthur Jones, 35, and J.D. Coleman, 44, died about 21/2 hours later at Hill Hospital in York. Otha Hinson, 35, died Saturday afternoon at Rush Foundation Hospital in Meridian. A fourth worker, David Webb, remains hospitalized in Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa.
York Mayor Carolyn Gosa said Sumter County Sheriff's Department and York Police Department officials continue to investigate. She said she doesn't know exactly how or where in the manhole the accident occurred. York Police Chief Toby Fitch said the cause of the accident is undetermined.
As far as protective gear, Gosa said the employees were wearing or using "none they needed that we know of at this time." Gosa said she wouldn't know if the accident may result in stricter work regulations or changes in day-to-day operations until after the investigation is complete. She said there probably would be some changes.
She said officials are waiting to talk to Webb, whose condition has been upgraded to "good," but he isn't yet coherent enough to answer questions about the accident. She said she could not say how long the investigation may take.
In the meantime, Gosa said city employees, who work closely together in this small town, are "taking it one day at a time."
She said stress management counseling is available for city employees and the families of those involved, but no one has taken advantage of it. Gosa, who is also a nurse, said people here are going through normal stages of grieving. After denial, people often express anger before there is acceptance, and right now, Gosa said many family members are angry.
She said city officials are offering the men's families financial assistance.
She said city officials have set up memorial funds for the families at the Bank of York. People who are interested in contributing may call (205) 392-5205 and ask for Frances Moll, or go by the bank at 301 Broad St. in York.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.