Co-workers Mourn Friend Killed In Accident

April 18, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 30, started out as a routine evening for the three men who work the midnight shift at the Westminster sewage treatment plant in Wakefield Valley.

Vance Summerhill, the shift supervisor, E. Lynn Blackston and Robert W. Knight talked and joked as they worked around the plant, switching pumps, monitoring the system.

It was a good crew, not just co-workers but friends, three guys who talked about their families and traded wiseacre insults. Mr. Summerhill and Mr. Knight were married with children, Mr. Blackston engaged.

All three had been in the military, so interservice rivalry became part of the jokes. They called Mr. Knight "jarhead" (Marines), Mr. Blackston "squid" (Navy) and Mr. Summerhill "flyboy" (Air Force).

The night crew works a straight eight-hour shift without a formal lunch break. One of the men, however, usually runs to the 7-Eleven in New Windsor for snacks and coffee, while another does the 2 a.m. chlorine test, and the third walks an inspection tour through the plant.

March 30 turned into March 31. The 24-year-old Mr. Knight, who was from Taneytown, usually did the chlorine test because he was the new employee and needed the experience. But that night he wanted a roast beef sub.

Mr. Summerhill wasn't hungry, so he said, "OK, I'll do the test, and you go."

Mr. Knight headed down Route 31 toward New Windsor and drove off the ragged edge of a road that wasn't there any more. It had vanished in a sinkhole 35 feet by 40 feet, 18 feet deep.

When someone stopped at the sewage treatment plant not long after Mr. Knight had left and reported that a blue van was in a sinkhole in the road, Mr. Summerhill and Mr. Blackston grabbed a tow rope and went to the scene.

"We had no idea it would be that bad," Mr. Summerhill said. "We thought we could pull him out."

It took rescue crews 2 1/2 hours to extricate Mr. Knight. He was flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he died about 7:30 that morning. He had suffered severe head injuries.

*

"What do you tell a 2-year-old when she asks for Daddy?" Doug Pauley asked. He and Mr. Knight had been close friends as well as co-workers. Both were born-again Christians. Mr. Pauley has children, too.

Mr. Knight and his wife, Nancy, had three children, Valerie Sanders, 8, Daniel Sanders, 7, and Samantha Storm Knight, 2. Mrs. Knight is expecting a fourth child in August.

City employees wanted to do something to help the family. Recreation director Carol Donovan came up with the idea of a silent auction and dinner to raise money for the Robert Knight Memorial Fund.

The dinner and auction is scheduled from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Westminster Fire Hall. City employees will be joined by volunteers from Mr. Knight's church, the Firm Foundation Rock Church; the Westminster Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, where he was a member; and Carroll Lutheran Village.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 5 to 11. They are available from the city recreation office at Longwell Municipal Center.

*

"It's funny, it's almost like a family member died," Mr. Pauley said.

That feeling was shared by other co-workers at the city water treatment plant last week. Mr. Knight took a job at the plant in late summer 1992 after learning how to purify drinking water in the Marines. Mr. Pauley, a treatment plant operator who has been with the city for four years, helped train Mr. Knight.

Mr. Knight "was just one of those guys everyone likes," Mr. Pauley said.

When the alternator belt broke on Mr. Pauley's car as he was leaving work, Mr. Knight jumped in to help try to fix it with staples and tape.

When heavy rains brought muddy water into the plant and operators had to shut the system down, Mr. Knight worked for 12 hours, went home for a nap and returned to help.

"He would find projects if they weren't on the board," said Paula K. Martin, plant superintendent. She referred to a work-note board in the plant conference room where instructions are posted.

Mr. Knight transferred to the wastewater treatment plant in January, bringing the same dedication and attitude to that job.

"I never saw the dark side of Bob," Mr. Summerhill said. "I never saw an angry side. He was just one of those guys who were happy all the time. He just never seemed to have a bad day."

Mr. Pauley and Mr. Knight had often talked about getting their families together, but they hadn't done it.

Maybe Nancy will want to bring the children to a cookout this summer, Mr. Pauley said.

"If we have it, Bob will be there," he said.

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