Longform

Chemically Burned: Dow Chemical Tries to Avoid Hot Water in Worker's Death

His skin was on fire. Brian Johns couldn't feel exactly what was happening to him through the jolt of endorphins and adrenaline pumping through his body, but the acid was still there, sizzling through layer after layer of his skin, from the rich brown color that coated his huge muscles to the pink skin underneath it to the red sinew of muscle beneath.

The ambulance wailed through the dark of night, taking him from the Rohm and Haas plant in Deer Park to the emergency room of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, almost flying over more than 40 miles of road. Now they were rushing him down the hospital corridor, already looking over the damage, noting the second- and third-degree burns that covered more than half of Johns's large body after an explosion in an ammonia recycling unit at the plant.

They cut his work jumpsuit off him and began rinsing his body with hundreds of gallons of lukewarm water to wash away the chemicals. Dr. David Herndon, chief of staff of the Blocker Burn Unit since 1981, laid a slip of pH paper on Johns's skin. It turned red, indicating the presence of acid. Herndon told the nurses to keep rinsing.

Johns had been conscious and aware for most of the time since the explosion. He'd already called his mother, Frances Sowell. The phone jangled just before midnight, and she heard her youngest son's deep voice on the line.

"Mother, there's been an accident. Meet me at the hospital," he said. His voice sounded so calm, Sowell wondered for a moment if it was her son who had been injured or if someone else was hurt.

Then he called back and told her they were headed to UTMB, a hospital with a world-­renowned burn center, the Blocker Burn Unit.

Sowell called her four other children, woke up her husband and drove to Galveston. Johns was already in surgery by the time they got there. Herndon scraped off the layers of skin damaged by acid, digging down past the burns that covered most of Johns's 6'9", 325-pound body, a massive structure of bulging muscles he'd crafted through years of bodybuilding, to find skin that was still alive.

As Sowell sat in the waiting room, her son's bosses settled into chairs in a corner of the room. His Rohm and Haas team leader, Lynnette Borrousch, walked over and introduced herself, asking if there was anything Sowell needed, but Tim Fox, a chemical engineer and one of Johns's supervisors, just sat in his chair, arms folded and hands clasped over his belly, eyes closed, not saying a word.

Sitting next to her mother, Pam Roberson studied Fox's face. He didn't even look at her or her mother. He just sat there until Herndon stepped into the waiting room, asking if the chemical engineer had arrived yet.

In a heartbeat, Fox sprang to life, out of his seat and across the room to the doctor. He and Herndon walked into the hallway, but from her chair near the door, Roberson could hear their conversation. Anxious for any information, she closed her eyes and focused, listening intently.

Fox told the doctor that there was nothing Johns was working with any more dangerous than extremely hot water.

"Non-caustic. It was non-caustic, doctor," Fox said.

"I just spent five hours scraping something off of this man's skin. It wasn't non-caustic," Herndon told Fox.

When Johns was due to come out of surgery, his family lined the hallway, craning to get a glimpse of him. Roberson saw a group coming down the hall wheeling a huge air bed with something on it — it was Johns's team; she recognized them — but she couldn't see her brother.

The bed drew up alongside her, and there was a mass of mottled, raw tissue and bandages, nothing that was her brother. Then she saw the eyes.

"Oh my God! That's Brian!"

Standing on the other side of the hall, Sowell craned her neck, but her other daughter, Ronetta, darted in front of her, blocking most of her view.

Borrousch peered over Roberson's shoulder, looked down into the bed and then slid past Sowell into an empty hospital room, cell phone to her ear.

"It's much worse than we thought," she said.

Listening, Sowell realized the "it" Borrousch was referring to was what had happened to her son.

Johns's family contends that he was injured in the explosion due to the gross negligence of his employers at Rohm and Haas, which is owned by Dow Chemical, the largest chemical company in the United States. Dow Chemical representatives and their lawyers declined to comment for this story.
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July 17, 2012, was another ordinary day for Johns. He pulled up in his pickup truck to the chemical plant he'd worked at as an operator for more than a decade and started his shift on the dot at 5 p.m.

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray