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News Forklift ruled likely cause of farm tragedy

Shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, Macon County Emergency Personnel reported to Norton Creek Farms after receiving a call that two men were injured. The incident sent 17 people to the hospital and resulted in one death. Photo by Bob ScottCarbon monoxide from a forklift possibly led to the death of one Macon County man and sent 16 others to the hospital last Friday night in an incident that occurred at Norton Creek Farms. According to the updated Macon County Emergency Service CAD report following the incident, Kristie Hall and Bill Best with the North Carolina Department of Labor tested the forklift used Friday night and within 15 seconds of cranking the machinery, monitors began picking up carbon monoxide (CO) at 1,000 parts per million (ppm).

"Kristie Hall and Bill Best with NCDOL (Health Compliance Officer II) were on scene trying to locate the source of carbon monoxide," reads the Macon County Emergency CAD report which was updated on Aug. 5 at 4:41 p.m. "Truck and trailer refrigerant system was tested and no significant CO was detected. Forklift's propane tank was put back on forklift and then the forklift was cranked. Two firemen were in trailer at time of cranking and almost immediately their monitors began picking up CO. In about 15 seconds, their monitors were showing 1,000 ppm of CO. It was determined that this was the cause of the concentration of CO in the building."

While the forklift did emit high levels of CO, the NCDOL OSHA division will continue the investigation and will have a final report in the coming weeks.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on Friday night, Carolyn Ammons made a call to 911 to report that she had entered the building at Norton Creek Farms and found two workers down inside a semitruck trailer. One man was on the forklift and the other was on the ground.

Two civilians, Marvin Mashburn and Clyde McCall stopped at Norton Creek Farms and removed the two men who were later identified as Bobby Ammons, 57, and Melvin Lands, 43, from the truck.

According to Matt Mason, assistant chief of Clarks Chapel Fire and Rescue, the two workers were found in a truck that was in a refrigerated packing house where fruits and vegetables are stored. The men were working to fill a blackberry order and were placing the order in the back of a semi-truck that was pulled up to the farm's loading dock. Ammons suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at Angel Medical Center in Franklin. Lands was airlifted to Greenville (S.C.) Memorial Hospital and was released late Monday night.

In addition to the two Norton Creek Farms employees, Mashburn, McCall, three Macon County Sheriff's deputies and 10 other emergency personnel were transported to Angel Medical Center for treatment and were released Friday night.

"When I arrived on scene, I noticed that the people who got there before me were starting to get sick," said Mason. "They were sweating and throwing up. I took control of the scene so that [Clarks Chapel] Fire Chief Tim Keener and our other assistant chief could leave to receive treatment."

According to Mason, everyone who was treated was found to have extreme levels of CO in their system, confirming that the cause of the incident was, in fact, a CO leak.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by vehicles, engines, stoves and heating systems. Exposure to high levels blocks oxygen from getting into the body, which can damage tissues and result in death.

"We monitored the CO levels once we got there, and the highest reading we got was 1,000 parts per million," said Mason. "That's highly concentrated for a CO level. The levels were so high that they didn't have to be inside the facility to receive exposure."

Representatives of the N.C. Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) were dispatched to the scene to determine the cause of the leak.

Prentiss Bridge Road was blocked Friday night to allow officials to properly secure the area around Norton Creek Farms. Photo by Bob Scott According to Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland, who's department has been assisting OSHA in their investigation, three possible causes were originally identified for the incident: The refrigerator unit inside of Norton Creek Farms; the truck that was pulled into the loading dock; and the forklift that was inside the truck. Norton Creek Farms' refrigeration system was the first to be pulled out, followed by the truck. After the forklift's propane tank was put back on the forklift on Monday and the machinery was turned on, OSHA was able to determine that CO was being emitted from the forklift.

According to Mason, the Macon County Department of Planning and Permitting issued the permit for operations for the Norton Creek Farms building in June 2011. The design of the building is relatively enclosed, so with the semi-truck backed up to the loading dock, the only opening was a side door.

Sheriff Holland reported the truck has been parked at the building for two hours. Holland said that the emergency personnel, although not in the enclosed area with the forklift, were working in the opening of the building, putting them in the direct line where the fumes would have been escaping. All doors leading to the outside were closed at the time.

"I am extremely proud and feel blessed of the actions of my officers, who along with the good Samaritans and rescue personnel, risked their lives to render aid to those in dire need," said Sheriff Holland. "While a life may have been lost they also saved lives. Each played a vital role in preventing a greater tragedy. While we take pride in knowing this, we also take this moment to express our sincere sympathy to those who suffered loss. May God comfort them during this time and know we will continue to pray for their family."

While this is not a criminal investigation, this case remains an ongoing investigation by North Carolina OSHA and The Macon County Sheriff’s Office will continue to assist as long as it is necessary. The NCDOL Occupational Safety and Health Division has not released a final determination and will not until the investigation is complete, which is anticipated to be in the coming weeks.

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