Omega Protein explosion leaves this survivor a ‘miserable person’

Rusty Gabel says he feels like a prisoner, unable to leave his front porch due to anxiety attacks since an explosion at the Omega Plant in Moss Point in 2014 killed one of his co-workers and seriously injured another. Gabel and two of his former co-workers are suing Omega Protein over the explosion.
Rusty Gabel says he feels like a prisoner, unable to leave his front porch due to anxiety attacks since an explosion at the Omega Plant in Moss Point in 2014 killed one of his co-workers and seriously injured another. Gabel and two of his former co-workers are suing Omega Protein over the explosion. amccoy@sunherald.com

Rusty Gabel thought he was a dead man on July 28, 2014 and, in a sense, he did die that day.

The man who enjoyed spending time with friends and going to concerts is gone. The pipe and steel fabricator who earned a good living no longer exists. Gabel, 41, said he is tired of trying to go out because he either suffers an anxiety attack or winds up in a confrontation.

“Everything between my ears is shot,” said Gabel. “I just sit on my front porch like I’m a prisoner. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t do anything. I don’t have any friends because I’m just a miserable person.”

Gabel, who shares a home with his mother and three dogs, has spent a good bit of time since that day in 2014 researching the safety and environmental record of Omega Protein, a publicly traded company that reported $359.3 million in revenues for 2015. Omega nets menhaden in the Atlantic and Gulf, processing the fish for human and animal food.

Gabel learned a federal judge in Norfolk, Virginia, assessed millions in penalties against Omega for polluting the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay with fish waste from its Reedville, Virginia, operations. And he researched the proper handling of “bailwater,” or “stickwater,” later described in lawsuits filed against the company as “ a liquid slurry of water, chemicals and the organic remnants of cooked fish” that can explode when subjected to heat.

Gabel also is now painfully familiar with the lawsuits Omega has faced in recent years over five deaths — two at the plant and three aboard a boat in the Gulf —and nine injuries, including his own.

The company has settled all the wrongful-death claims and most of the injury claims all on undisclosed terms with workers or the families they left behind. As part of these settlements, Omega denies any wrongdoing.

Gabel and two of his former co-workers are the latest to sue the company in U.S. District Court in Gulfport. Their pending lawsuits are over an explosion they say injured them and killed one of their co-workers. The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration concluded Omega could have prevented the accident by following federal safety regulations and removing potentially explosive material from work areas.

Ben Landry, director of public relations for Houston-based Omega, said he could not discuss the lawsuits. But he said the company has invested in equipment and training.

“We’re trying to become the best business we can in terms of safety and compliance,” Landry said. “The incident that occurred in 2014 is certainly unfortunate, but we strive to improve every step of the way.”

‘Trapped rat’

Back in summer 2014, Gabel was working through a labor company for an Omega contractor, supervising a crew that was building a new tank, Tank 4, at the plant. It would sit beside an identical tank, Tank 10, with a catwalk linking the two. The work was running behind schedule, lawsuits claim.

The lawsuits say Omega engineer Alan Stewart indicated Tank 10 “was safe and ready for hot work,” meaning workers could use welding equipment around it. A warning label on Tank 10 indicated its contents were stable, with a low risk of flammability, the lawsuits claim.

Stewart told an employee of the contractor supervising the work, Accu-Fab, that the tank contained stickwater, but it was not hazardous or flammable.

“In addition,” the lawsuit says, “Stewart added that it would cost Omega several thousand dollars to drain the stickwater out of Tank #10.”

OSHA later cited Accu-Fab and Gabel’s employer, Global Employment Services, for failing to educate workers on explosion hazards. Also, an OSHA news release said, Omega failed to inform Accu-Fab that Tank 10 contained wastewater capable of producing gases that could be highly explosive even at low concentrations.

Gabel said he was under the impression the tank contained “old, dirty water.”

Workers had previously cut into pipes connected to Tank 10 with a welding torch, Gabel’s lawsuit says, adding to is belief the contents were harmless.

Under Gabel’s direction, co-workers Joshua D. Walls and Jerry Lee Taylor II, both of Moss Point, climbed a metal staircase on the side of the tank so they could cut away pipe for the catwalk.

Gabel was a little more than halfway up the staircase when it happened. According to the lawsuits, welding equipment in use on the bottom of the tank ignited the stickwater inside. The stickwater contained flammable gases — hydrogen sulfide, methane and methanethiol — created by decomposition of the fish matter.

The 10-ton metal top blew off the tank.

“I felt like a trapped rat,” Gabel said. “I knew I was going to die that day.”

‘Fortuitous’ landing

Gabel did not die. Instead, he searched frantically in the explosion’s aftermath for his two co-workers. He spotted Taylor and knew he was dead.

Taylor was the father of a 3-year-old and an unborn child. The lawsuit his widow filed said, “The explosion catapulted Jerry Lee’s body 100 feet to the southeast, where he died after landing on the unforgiving metal top of another tank in the tank farm.”

Taylor’s widow settled her lawsuit with Omega in May on undisclosed terms without any admission of liability on Omega’s part, as is standard in these cases.

The widow’s attorney, William Liston III of Jackson, declined to comment on the case. Liston also represents Joshua Walls, who was also blown from the top of Tank 10.

The explosion catapulted Walls to the southeast, his lawsuit says. His body blasted through a metal roof next door. Walls landed on second-story catwalk.

The lawsuit says, “This fortuitous circumstance likely saved Walls’ life by preventing him from falling farther to the ground.”

Still, the explosion severely injured him. The lawsuit says some of those injuries are permanent and disfigured him. Walls had undergone seven surgeries by the time the lawsuit was filed in May.

He is suing Omega for allegedly breaching its duty to warn the workers of the hazards of stickwater and for negligent misrepresentation. Walls asks for almost $1.4 million to cover past and future medical expenses, and more than $1.1 million in lost wages and other expenses.

If gross negligence on Omega’s part is proven at a jury trial, the lawsuit says, Walls also should be awarded punitive damages.

Trust evaporates

Gulfport attorneys Ben Bowden and Jim Halliday are suing Omega for the same alleged wrongs on behalf of Gabel and Clay Davis of Pascagoula, who was working at the base of Tank 10. The lawsuit filed on behalf of Davis says the explosion blew him into some pipes about 8 feet away. Davis, too, feared for his life and the lives of his co-workers.

His lawsuit says he suffered physical injuries and permanent mental problems. The lawsuit filed for Gabel does not mention any physical injuries, referring instead to permanent mental damage.

Both men ask to be compensated for their injuries and lost wages, with no amounts specified, and for punitive damages if gross negligence is proven.

In his job, which can be dangerous, Gabel had to depend on others, he said, including the workers who came before him and the supervisors he relied on for clearance to perform work.

“The guy told me it was just old dirty water in the tank,” Gabel said. “ ... If you can’t trust anybody, you can’t do that job.”

Federal fines have been levied against the Omega Protein plant in Moss Point for safety violations and against the Reedville, Virginia, plant for pollution. In addition to two worker deaths at the Moss Point plant in recent years, three workers died while menhaden fishing on an Omega boat and two others were injured while working in Omega’s shipyard. Those cases are detailed below.

OSHA cases

April 10, 2012: Inspection followed the death of Christopher Hebert, 24, who was trapped in a rotating screw conveyor that switched on. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor initially proposed $79,200 in fines for 21 serious violations, but settled the case with Omega, which agreed to pay $50,000 in fines. Serious violations are those in which there is a high probability a worker could be skilled or seriously injured.

Jan. 15, 2014: Inspection followed a complaint. OSHA initially proposed $5,568 in penalties for two serious violations. OSHA and Omega settled, with the company agreeing to pay $3,341 in fines.

July 28, 2014: Inspection followed the death of contract worker Jerry Lee Taylor II, 25, in a plant explosion. OSHA initially proposed $139,700 in penalties; OSHA and Omega settled, with the company agreeing to pay $83,900 for nine serious and three repeat violations.

Clean Water Act violations

June 4, 2013: Omega sentenced in U.S. District Court, Norfolk, Virginia, to three years’ probation and $7.5 million in penalties for two violations of the Clean Water Act. The company illegally discharged fish-processing waste into the Chesapeake Bay from May 2008 through September 2010 from its plant in Reedville, Virginia, and oily wastewater from its fishing fleet into the Atlantic Ocean from April 2009 through September 2010.

Boat accidents

May 18, 2011: Three men aboard the Omega pogy boat Sandy Point drowned after colliding with the Eurus London freighter in the Gulfport Ship Channel. Omega reached settlements in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the families of Roderick Watkins, 48, of Moss Point; Lindsey Tucker, 58, of Vancleave; and Thomas L. Moore, 65, of Havelock, N.C.

Jan. 20, 2014: A marine carpenter and co-worker from US Joiner LLC were injured when the vessel they were working on in Omega’s shipyard, the Oyster Bayou, was hit by The Frosty Morn, a vessel Omega owned and operated, according to a lawsuit one of the men later filed. An insurance company for the second worker intervened and the parties later settled the case.

Compiled by Anita Lee