DECATUR, Ala. – Officials with Daikin-America in Decatur confirm a 20-year employee of the company died after being exposed to chemicals on the job.
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of our long-time, beloved team member, Wesley Rusk,” according to a release sent to News 19 from Daikin-America. The company went on to say Rusk was being treated at Vanderbilt Medical Center for ‘complications from a chemical exposure.’
News 19 spoke with Rusk’s wife Sharona Wednesday evening. She told us that exposure happened back on July 2, and says Rusk passed away Tuesday, August 10. Wesley and Sharona Rusk just celebrated 20 years of marriage in June, and she said he worked for Daikin for the duration of their marriage. He worked, she said, in the gas area of the plant.
“Wesley’s exposure occurred in an outside area of the plant where chemicals are processed,” the company said.
Sharona says Wesley told her, and several doctors and nurses, what happened at Daikin-America on July 2:
“There were 3 of them out there, outside, working on the towers. There are two towers that the chemicals flow through. Supposedly the excess chemicals flow into what they called the pit. When they went out that night, the smell from the pit was different than what it had been in the past.”
July 2 was a Friday.
“Late Saturday evening, early Sunday morning, that’s when he started feeling the symptoms. We made him go to the ER. I saw how low his oxygen was and he couldn’t walk from one room to the other without struggling,” Sharona recalled.
She said her husband’s symptoms included tightness in the chest, headaches, shortness of breath, and coughing. He was taken to Huntsville Hospital, then to Vanderbilt about two weeks later, fighting the effects of the chemical exposure for weeks.
“Per the doctors report, based off the chemical sheet Daikin sent to Vandy, and all the research they have done on those chemicals after looking at his CT scans, they determined it to be sulfur dioxide,” Mrs. Rusk said.
She says by the time he got to Vanderbilt Medical Center, he was walking around the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and seemed to be making progress as he received antibiotics, steroids, and breathing treatments.
She calls the endeavor a rollercoaster, with chapters of sedation, low oxygen levels, and inflammation.
“The inflammation cleared up enough for [doctors] to see enough for them to see how bad the damage was,” she said. “Unfortunately when they could see the extent of the damage, they realized his lungs were so damaged, eaten up by the chemicals, they were beyond repair.”
Transplants were the only option at that point, she says.
“We were doing really good coming off the sedation to get where we needed to be for the lung transplant.”
Then, she says, he got a fever, pushing his body to work overtime, and his condition worsened.
From July 2 to August 10, Mrs. Rusk was optimistic that her husband would recover.
“It’s still hard to comprehend. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around all this,” she says. “It’s hard to accept the fact he’s never coming back home again. My kids are as heartbroken as anyone could be. They’re very broken over this. It’s really taken its toll on them.”
Now, she said she is focused on keeping his infectious laugh and love of Christ in the minds and hearts of those who knew him, including their two children, ages 14 and 18.
In their statement, Daikin-America said the plant is operating safely and that there is an investigation into the causes and circumstances surrounding Rusk’s exposure and subsequent passing.
Grief counselors are reportedly on-site to offer support for employees, in addition to the plant’s Human Resources department.
According to Mrs. Rusk, visitation will be Friday night at 6 pm. The funeral service will be Saturday at 2 pm and he will lie in state from 1-2 pm. Both will be held at Eva Baptist Church.
Daikin-America did not release what the chemical was, or whether other employees were affected.