Firm sued after friend dies trying to save owner Both were overcome by fumes in tank truck

April 17, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

On a February day in 1992, Martin Wirtz died after inhaling toxic fumes while trying to save his friend, Milton "Mickey" White III, who collapsed inside a tank truck after emptying it of chemical waste.

Five years later, Wirtz's sister is facing White in Baltimore County Circuit Court, suing his company on behalf of her brother's estate.

The suit by Linda Wirtz claims Farmington Freight, which White owns, was negligent in collecting, transporting and disposing of the chemicals.

It also names Cargill Inc., a molasses maker that supplied the nearly 3,000 gallons of waste the day of the accident.

That day -- Feb. 8, 1992 -- Wirtz was working as a mechanic on a welding job at Whitelyn Farms, a dairy farm in northern Baltimore County.

White -- who drove his company's truck that day -- had just finished dumping what he believed was a mixture of molasses, rain water and chemical fertilizer into a 1.2 million-gallon manure pit at his family's farm.

Noticing a foul smell, White went inside the tank to wash it and passed out.

Wirtz went in after him, but could not lift White's 240-pound body through the small opening at the top of the tank.

Rescue workers brought both men out of the tank, but Wirtz died two days later.

White survived, but suffered brain damage that left him with no memory of the day of the accident -- or for much of what happened during 1992, he said yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

His memory loss made him an unusual witness -- he said his answers were based on what other people told him he did the day of the accident.

"I had what you call a noxious brain injury -- from the lack of oxygen," he said. "It damaged my short-term memory. Luckily, my long-term memory was intact so I could read and write."

White did testify, however, that it was not unusual for him to descend into the closed tank to wash it out.

Farmington Freight was later cited by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency for failing to have adequate rescue procedures, failing to test the tank for oxygen before White entered it and for his entering the tank without another person to talk to outside.

James Currens, another worker at the farm the day of the accident, testified this week that "a very offensive odor" burned his eyes and throat when he looked inside the tank after White and Wirtz passed out.

Lawyers for Farmington Freight and Cargill have told jurors that Wirtz's death was an unfortunate freak accident, but was not their fault.

They argued that White had cleaned out his tank from inside many times before without incident and that Wirtz was warned by others working at the farm not to go inside the tank.

The case is being heard before Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr.

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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