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Victims of Superior landfill incident identified; authorities say they died quickly

The four victims of Thursday night's toxic gas accident in the Village of Superior probably died quickly, well before rescue crews could arrive, authorities said Friday.

The four victims of Thursday night's toxic gas accident in the Village of Superior probably died quickly, well before rescue crews could arrive, authorities said Friday.

But questions remain on exactly why the men originally went into an underground holding tank and why they didn't take simple and common precautions to protect themselves against deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

The accident occurred about 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lakehead Blacktop Materials landfill south of Superior that's owned and operated by Douglas County's well-known Kimmes family.

The dead include Joseph P. Kimmes, 44, from rural Douglas County; Scott A. Kimmes, 40, from the Village of Superior, both principals in the company; Harold "Tim'' Olson, 47, of rural Douglas County, a Kimmes employee; and Paul E. Cossalter, 41, of Wrenshall, a private contractor. The Kimmes men were brothers.

The victims apparently were trying to replace a pump or clear a blockage from a 15- to 20-foot holding tank that collects runoff from the landfill, Superior Fire Chief Tad Matheson said. Runoff in the tank then is pumped into the City of Superior's municipal sewage treatment system.

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After the first victim climbed down a ladder into the tank's three-foot-square opening, Matheson said it appeared the others followed in to attempt rescues but were immediately overcome. Two remaining workers did not enter the tank and called 911 at about 5:40 p.m.

But it was too late.

It was quickly obvious that "it turned into a recovery type scenario'' and not a rescue, Matheson told reporters Friday morning.

Matheson said first responders used a simple gas detection meter before entering the tank and found readings of hydrogen sulfide of 200 parts-per-million. According to federal regulators, levels of 50 to 200 ppm can cause immediate blackout and sudden death. The gas can be easily smelled at levels as low as .13 ppm, Matheson noted.

Hydrogen sulfide is produced as proteins break down and leads to the rotten egg smell often associated with sewer gas. But the deadly gas also can be produced from other organic materials besides sewage, such as the breakdown of construction demolition material like gypsum board, said Steve Johnson, safety and security director of the Western lake Superior Sanitary District in Duluth.

Matheson said first responders reported the victims were not wearing any safety equipment and that no such equipment was visible at the scene.

It's not yet clear if autopsies would be conducted, said Douglas County Sheriff Tom Dalbec. Douglas County Medical Examiner Darrell Witt was out of town on an-other case, Dalbec said, and will decide if and when to conduct autopsies.

A team from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was on the accident scene Friday afternoon and will now con-duct an investigation on how and why the accident occurred, Matheson said.

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OSHA regulations are clear that whenever workers enter an underground, confined space they must take precautions to avoid hydrogen sulfide.

Anyone who works in underground spaces should know that OSHA rules require a two-or-three person crew, gas detection meters and gear to quickly extract overcome workers before anyone goes underground, Johnson said. It's why there is always at least one person standing above manhole, often appearing not to be working. Federal law requires they be on watch and able to extract any worker below.

Detection meters are first used to determine if there is any carbon monoxide, a lack of oxygen, combustible gasses or hydrogen sulfide.

"Hydrogen sulfide is the stuff that kills farmers in manure pits every day. It makes you stupid so fast you don't know it's happening,'' Johnson said. "It's always one of our top concerns because it's so toxic at even low levels.''

Joseph Kimmes II, the founder of J. Kimmes Construction, which owns Lake-head Blacktop Materials Landfill where the accident occurred, told the Associated Press Friday he wasn't sure why the men went into the tank. The 71-year-old father, fighting back tears, said he was unsure exactly what happened.

"I have heard so many different stories," he said. "I don't think they were work-ing down there. Something else happened."

Four of his sons took over the company in 2005, Kimmes said. The company was founded in 1989.

The area in which the men died is known as a "dry manhole" and is an extremely dangerous place to work, said Jeff Vito, Superior Director of Development and Government Affairs. It's part of a "leachate collection system," commonly used to gather water that filters through landfill materials.

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At the demolition land-fill, that water was collected in pipes situated below Superior's wastewater collection sewers, so pumps were used to raise the contaminated water for transit to the mu-nicipal treatment plant.

"It's my understanding that a pump went out and they were installing a replacement," said Vito, who directed the city's public works department for 17 years. "Typically, the pump is situated on a rail so it can be removed and serviced without going in."

The sheriff said the victims may have responded out of instinct to help others, ignoring or not understanding the danger below.

"First one goes down and is overcome by gas and drops or falls, and the second one looking down from above sees the first one, figures he can go down to rescue,'' Dalbec said. "Same thing happens to him, the third one same thing and fourth one same thing hap-pens."

Staff Writers Steve Kuchera and Keith Faber, the Superior Evening Telegram and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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