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Meridian hospitals, law enforcement respond to Alabama chemical leak

By Staff
CHEMICAL ACCIDENT Meridian Police Capt. Jeff Lewis speaks with media outside Riley's emergency room entrance as EMS Roger Williamson from Choctaw County, Ala., returns a gurney to one of the ambulances. Victims of a gas leak Wednesday at Georgia Pacific's plant in Pennington, Ala., were treated at Meridian hospitals. There were two deaths. Photo by Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star
By Chris Allen Baker/staff writer
Jan. 17, 2002
Ralph Stewart and his wife, Jewell, arrived at Rush Foundation Hospital late Wednesday seeking information about co-workers they feared were involved in a chemical leak at an Alabama paper mill that claimed two lives and critically injured another.
Two construction workers died. The condition of another victim, listed as critical when he arrived at Riley Hospital, had improved by early today. Deanna Cornish, spokesman for Riley Hospital said he was moved to a private room.
One fatality was identified as Ben Singleton, 35, of Sweetwater, Ala., who arrived in full arrest and later died at Riley. The second victim was identified by The Associated Press as James Michael Sager, 45, of Myrtlewood.
Twelve others were hospitalized after the 3:30 p.m. hydrogen sulfide leak at the west Alabama facility near Pennington. While some victims were driven by private vehicle to Thomasville, Ala., the most critical cases were transported to medical centers in Meridian.
Stewart, 63, a lifelong resident of Meridian, said he has worked in the maintenance department of Georgia Pacific since 1964.
Stewart said it was not unusual for the victims to be construction workers because, "there is a lot of construction going on at the mill right now."
J.W. Cowan, executive director of Choctaw County EMS in Butler, Ala., said all five of his ambulances responded, transporting one victim to Rush and two to Riley.
Two ambulance crews were treated in Meridian for exposure, Cowan said, adding that he notified Metro Ambulance in Meridian to be on standby. None of Metro's crews participated, according to a Metro staff member.
Steve Fleming, a paramedic with Choctaw County Emergency Medical Services, brought in the last victim to Meridian, arriving at Riley. He said the victim was unconscious but in stable condition.
Fleming described the scene at the Georgia Pacific mill in Pennington as "surprisingly calm." He said the mill was well organized.
The Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department and the Meridian Police Department sent deputies and officers to block intersections from Highway 19 South to clear a path for ambulances. Both departments learned of the incident between 4:10 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
Lauderdale County sheriff's deputies helped keep the roadways clear and provided an escort from the state line, said Maj. Ward Calhoun. Several deputies were just finishing a training detail, providing three extra deputies available to assist the four already on duty.
Preparation for the traumas at Riley, Rush and Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center began immediately after they learned of the leak.
Riley's staff was told there were 15-20 victims coming to Meridian. Pam Tvarkunas, Riley's director of nursing, said multiple victims are usually spread out among the hospitals.
While only the three seriously injured victims were actually transported to Meridian, Riley Hospital's newly renovated emergency room, which opened this month, was put to the test when two of the victims arrived.
At Rush, emergency room personnel immediately began similar preparations as staff and doctors checked supplies.
Although none of the victims came to Jeff Anderson, the hospital's emergency plan was active and in place with extra staff stationed in the emergency room's receiving and triage area.
At least one person with ties to Georgia Pacific received good news Wednesday.
Upon hearing about the accident, June Ezell, who lives in Butler just a few miles from the plant but works in Meridian, arrived at Rush with a cell phone in her hand.
Ezell said her sister was working there at the time and was trying to find out if she was all right.