Fatal accident at Tulsa's wastewater treatment plant still under investigation

Wednesday, August 11th 2004, 10:29 am
By: News On 6

A 28-year-old husband and father of three was the victim of a toxic gas accident in Tulsa. Terry DeBuhr [pictured] died Tuesday evening when he was overcome by toxic gas at the city of Tulsa’s wastewater treatment plant near 51st and Elwood.

DeBuhr worked at L and L Construction, which has done work for the city many times. Wednesday afternoon, the company's owner talked with News on 6 reporter Steve Berg about the accident.

After a long and difficult day Tuesday, Hank Johnson says he couldn't sleep. "I went home last night and sat on the floor and hugged my dog and kissed my wife and told them how much I loved them because you just never know, it's just so sad because you never know."

And they still don't know how the accident happened that killed his employee, 28-year-old Terry DeBuhr.

DeBuhr and a fellow worker Chuck Nelson had been working for several hours inside a 12-foot deep chamber called a junction box, which was about half-filled with a water-sewage mix. The accident happened as they were wrapping up for the day, when one or perhaps both of the men went back in to retrieve a ladder.

Clayton Edwards with the City of Tulsa says there are obviously many safety procedures, including checking the gas levels. "They also make sure there's proper harnessing and lines that are secured to people going into the structure, requirements to blow fresh air down into structures like that. There's a checklist of activities they must follow and check off before they enter into a confined space."

Investigators don't know for sure yet whether all the procedures had been followed. Johnson says DeBuhr had only worked for L and L for about a year, but had plenty of training. "He had done this type of work before, so he was very experienced in this type of thing."

He'd also worked there long enough to develop a close bond with the small, close-knit company. Johnson says DeBuhr was a devoted family man, and that everyone at the company is hurting.

Johnson says it "is" possible for gas to build up very quickly in a sewer or a junction box, although he stresses they don't know yet if that's what happened here.

The other worker, Chuck Nelson, is still unconscious in a hospital.