Kansas Men Killed by Fumes; Responders Back Off

July 10, 2013
Personnel detected a high level of hydrogen sulfide gas, and didn't enter the structure.

July 10--CLAFLIN -- Barton County officials say a man and his son-in-law died in an oil-field accident Monday after there were apparently overcome by a toxic gas.

Family members discovered the accident involving Curtis Hoffman, 50, of Great Bend, and Kebby Myers, 30, of Claflin, after the two failed to return home, said Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir.

"It was a bad deal," Bellendir said.

The call initially came in as a possible drowning at a rural saltwater disposal lease about 3 miles north and a mile east of Claflin, but investigators later determined it to be an oil-field accident, Bellendir said.

Emergency personnel arriving on the scene first found Myers deceased on the steps of a flooded underground cellar-type structure that was part of a saltwater disposal system.

Emergency personnel were unable to enter the structure because of high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas, which can be a byproduct from the production of oil and natural gas.

Hydrogen sulfide has a strong odor of rotten eggs at low concentrations and a sweetish odor at higher locations, but experts advise odor can't be used as a warning of exposure since at concentrations of just 20 to 30 parts per million it may deaden the sense of smell by paralyzing the respiratory center of the brain. At high enough concentrations, it can cause death in minutes.

Emergency responders called Haz-Mat Inc. to bring specialized equipment and two oilfield tank trucks to remove the water flooding into the structure. Authorities finally recovered Hoffman's body at about 12:20 a.m. A deputy county corner pronounced both men dead at the scene.

It was determined Hoffman had been working on a valve in the building and called Myers to bring him some parts. It appears the hydrogen sulfide gas first overcame Hoffman and then Myers, when he arrived.

The leaking valve Hoffman had been working on then caused the cellar to flood, Bellendir stated.

"This was an old oil and gas well which had been a working well for 40 or 50 years, which they converted into a saltwater disposal well," Bellendir said. "For wells to produce sweet gas that then turns sour is fairly common around here."

"I've seen in the past at some locations warnings signs posted that hydrogen sulfide gas is present, but I didn't see any signs last night," Bellendir said Tuesday. "I don't know if there's a history of gas at this well location."

The sheriff recalled an incident in the county when he was a child, in the mid-1970s, when well gas killed three men, including two people who attempted to rescue the third man and died.

Copyright 2013 - The Hutchinson News, Kan.

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