Sunday, January 07, 2007

Bleak Christmas with seizures became one of the best ones!

“This was my toughest Christmas ever, but I can honestly say it was the best Christmas.”That’s what 3V Chemical Co. worker Tommy Barnhill said Tuesday as he continues his recovery from a Nov. 4 plant accident that claimed the life of one worker and injured Barnhill and another man.The past two months, Barnhill said, have been the most challenging of his life, but it has helped him see the love and generosity of his fellow man.

Barnhill was hired at 3V in February 2006. It was a second career as he has also spent the past 14 years as a minister.He said the day of the accident was a normal day. That is, until an urgent distress message came across the walkie talkies inside the plant letting them know two of their co-workers, Jason Altman and Keith Gibson, were stuck inside a dryer that is used to dry acetone, a flammable chemical.Barnhill and several other men frantically worked to get the men out. Gibson was the first brought to safety.

Altman, who was alert, helped to get Gibson out of danger.Once Gibson was out of the dryer, the workers rushed him to the front gate where they were waiting for the ambulance to arrive.“I carried him on my lap on a golf cart. He was not breathing and we couldn’t get a heartbeat. I prayed for him and after we got

Ahim in the ambulance someone asked if all the men were accounted for. That’s when we realized Jason was still in the dryer,” Barnhill recalled.The workers rushed back to the dryer.“I still had (Gibson’s) shoes in my hands. I threw them down and went to help get Jason,” Barnhill recalled. kBarnhill was hoisted upside down inside the dryer and another worker went down and passed Altman to him and he then helped get him to the surface.

Altman’s lifeless body was handed to workers outside the dryer. Moments later, Barnhill passed out from breathing in the chemicals inside the dryer, he recalled. Even while they worked to try to revive Altman, the 3V employees scrambled to get Barnhill away from the dangerous chemicals. Their work saved his life but he was not out of danger.

The ambulance driver — while en route to the hospital with Barnhill who began having seizures for the first time in his life — had to pull over twice and assist the EMS workers because Barnhill’s heart had stopped.“I remember hearing one of the paramedics say ‘we are losing him,’” he remembered.Once they arrived at the hospital, Barnhill and everyone in the ambulance had to be decontaminated before they were allowed to enter the emergency room.Barnhill was in and out of consciousness while he was in the emergency room.

At one point, he became alert enough to ask what happened to Jason Altman. No one would tell him. A little while later, Barnhill’s wife, Cindi, was allowed to be by her husband and she told him that Altman had been killed.Tears over tragedy On Tuesday, as he talked about that tragic day, Barnhill began to cry as he talked about Jason Altman, a man he had known years before he began working at 3V.“It’s ironic because me and Jason’s daddy, Ronnie, grew up together. We were childhood friends,” Barnhill said.

Barnhill’s tears were mixed with a look of joy Tuesday when he talked about something that happened while he and Altman were working a couple of weeks before the accident.“One morning at about 2 a.m. I led him to the Lord. He became a Christian. So I knew he was OK. He had the best Christmas he could have had,” Barnhill, a Baptist minister, said. The conversion, he said, took place in the company’s canteen.

He said Altman started asking him about the ministry.“He said me and my wife need to get more active in church. I told him to let go and let God take care of the rest. He started bawling and asked Christ into his heart,” said Barnhill, adding Altman was the 10th worker he had prayed the salvation prayer with since he was hired.The thing that still brings Barnhill to tears is when he thinks about the family Altman left behind.“He had a wonderful wife and was the spitting image of his daddy. In fact, the first time I saw him I called him Ronnie,” Barnhill said.

Road to recoveryBarnhill’s health is much better now than it was in the days following the accident but he still has a long way to go.He spent four days at a hospital in Columbia. During some of that time he was on life support. He still has to visit various doctors’ offices as often as three times per week.The seizures he suffers from time to time are not caused by epilepsy.“They are chemical-induced seizures,” he said. However, it is still unknown what the exact chemicals were that Barnhill breathed in while he was in the dryer.

Those answers may not be known until Altman’s comprehensive autopsy is complete, which could take several more weeks.“I have to be seizure-free for at least six months before I can get my license back,” he said.The doctors told Barnhill he will be on medications for at least three or four years.“They have to get my body’s electrical system back on track,” Barnhill said.Doctors are also concerned about Barnhill’s lungs. “They say my lungs were burned.

They called me a high risk patient.”Even though Barnhill is able to get out of his house more often than he could about a month ago, there are still restrictions on where he can go. When he is in a store, he has to avoid any areas that have chemical products such as lawn and garden or perfume departments.“If I get around those things, I get short-winded,” he said.Cindi Barnhill said her husband’s accident has had a major impact on their entire family.

Their 16-year-old son spends a lot of time driving his dad around.“It has turned our world upside down,” she said.She said her husband has received a lot of support from his co-workers and his immediate supervisors, but has not received any calls from the upper management of the company.The Times has also left numerous messages with a company spokesman but those calls were never returned.The family has hired attorney Robert Maring to represent them in any legal action that may take place as a result of the accident.In the past eight weeks, the Barnhills have only received two worker’s compensation checks.

Heartfelt thanksMrs. Barnhill said because of the timing of the accident, she thought it was going to be a bleak Christmas for her family but because of the generosity of Georgetown County residents, it was a joyful season.Barnhill said as he was being wheeled from the emergency room to the intensive care unit at the Georgetown Memorial Hospital, the halls were full of his co-workers and friends who were there to show their concern and offer any support and help his family needed.“If it had not been for the people in this community, we would not have made it,” he said.

Mr. Barnhill, during his career as a minister, has filled in from time to time at several churches in Georgetown County such as Ringle Heights Baptist, Spring Gully Baptist and Johnson’s Chapel.During his ministry years, Barnhill collected numerous offerings for others in need. This has been the first time his family has been on the receiving end.“We have now been on both ends of the spectrum,” Mrs. Barnhill said. “It has been overwhelming.

Churches we didn’t even know existed and people we don’t even know have sent us love offerings. People in Georgetown really know the true meaning of Christmas. They have definitely shared the Christmas spirit with our family.”Mrs. Barnhill said “it’s a privilege to live in this town where people are so caring and loving.”

Sunday school classes from different churches and some businesses have “adopted” the Barnhill family to help them make it through this difficult time.“We just want to say a very big thank you to everyone,” Mr. Barnhill said. “We will never be able to express how much everyone means to us.”


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