The fire this time
Working long hours around volatile materials with little training proved fatal at a plant in Minden
He lightly brushed his bandaged hand over the burns on his face, scratching them gently. Besides the pain and the irritation where his clothing brushed against his raw wounds, the itching was hard to take.
But Minden plant explosion survivor Raúl Gonzáles, 26, told reporters through a translator Monday that he’s starting to feel better, at least physically.
“He was in a lot of pain last week,” translated Nico de la Puente. “He says it was very hard for him to breathe.”
Gonzáles’s brother, Jaime, was killed in the explosion.
"[Jaime] came to this country to seek a better life,” said his sister, Teresa Gonzáles, also speaking through a translator. “His wife is very ill, and he has four children. He had been here about a month, then he died. And his wife is still struggling in Mexico with four kids.”
By having Raúl and Teresa and other explosion survivors talk with the media, Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers’ Rights said he hoped to put faces to the recent tragedy that killed Jaime and left four other workers badly burned.
“These are real working members of our community,” Stoneburner said. “Not just reports in a file. When the news segment is over, their pain continues.”
Raúl and his brother moved to Nevada to keep their jobs when the aerosol recycling plant they worked for, Depressurized Technologies International, moved to Minden. On Monday, Raúl described his job and the events leading up to the explosion.
The plant workers’ job entailed draining the contents of aerosol cans into containers. Though the company owned a machine for doing this safely, the workers say they did most of their work in a back room, puncturing cans with hammers and nails. Raúl said the men typically worked five 12-hour shifts per week. He said the training manuals consisted of a few handouts written in Spanish.
Raúl said he didn’t know what kind of chemical product he was making. “Some kind of wax,” he said.
Workers said that no managers were in the building on the night of the Sept. 17 explosion. Four men were working the swing shift that night. As Raúl bent down, “pressing cans,” he saw the whole room light up. He stood and “felt the fire on his back.” Though he yanked off his facemask as he ran, he left his goggles on. That saved his eyes, he said.
“All I did was run,” he said.
Stiffening regulations and adding provisions to carefully track the handling and storage of hazardous materials are ways the Nevada Legislature worked on to prevent such disasters as the Minden DTI explosion after the 1998 Sierra Chemical explosion that killed four workers.
State Sen. Randolph Townsend, who addressed the media along with the burn victims, said he’d push for a legislative commission to hold a hearing on the issue of sharing information between agencies to track hazardous materials.
“It’s important that we start this before the victims become statistics,” Townsend said. “Before they are lost in the morass of typical political issues.”
As a business dealing with hazardous materials, DTI had seemingly slipped through some cracks. The fire department in Minden, Stoneburner said, didn’t know that the plant was in its district. Yet the Department of Environmental Protection had inspected the business and found everything in order.
Townsend said he’d ask the governor to issue an executive order instructing state agencies to share information. He’d also like to see the Attorney General’s Office do a full criminal investigation of DTI management.
“Folks behind me today are here because their employer got behind that radar screen,” Townsend said. He said that preliminary investigations show that DTI owners evaded responsible practices, from failing to provide insurance to failing to provide adequate training. “Every single thing you can do illegally was done, to the detriment of these folks.”
A lawyer for DTI’s owners told reporters that the operation was run safely, with proper training and stacks of safety manuals for workers to read.
Raúl, who said he and his brother had about the equivalent of a sixth-grade education, said he hadn’t been given stacks of books to read. He said he didn’t feel properly trained to do his job. But he didn’t feel angry toward his employer as much as he felt sad over his inability to save his brother’s life.
“He says he just wants to thank everyone who showed up for this," the translator said. "He says he hopes this gets resolved."