Employee moves on after fatal explosion | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Employee moves on after fatal explosion

by Regina Purcell, Tribune News Service

A year ago, Gardnerville resident Susano Lopez, 30, was a handsome man, working in a new job and supporting his wife. He was living the American dream after immigrating from Mexico.

On Sept. 17, 2001, Depressurized Technologies Inc., the aerosol recycling firm in Minden where he worked for three months, exploded. One person died and four employees were injured, including Lopez, who was burned over 70 percent of his body.

Today, Lopez is a scarred man. The blast nearly blew off his ears, and the intense heat fused his bones and joints together. He is not bitter. He is not angry.

“I heard the big explosion and lifted up my head from work and saw the fire of the blast coming toward me,” Lopez said through interpreter Pastor Adam Barkley of the First Baptist Church in Minden. “I didn’t want to die there. The doors (at the plant) had already been blasted off by the explosion, so I was able to run out through the fire. Then I started to roll around (on the ground) to put out the flames.”

While he faults his former boss for not providing adequate insurance to cover costs for accidents such as the plant explosion, Lopez disagrees with the other victims, who claim they were not properly trained in safety procedures.

“I don’t know why the explosion happened, but I don’t put the blame on anybody,” he said. “We had training. We knew what we needed to do. There were rules and regulations we knew before the accident and some were not being followed.

“So some of the blame is on us. We had safety training and we weren’t using that (knowledge.)”

Last week Lopez, wife Cira, and other families attended a memorial at the First Baptist Church for Jaime Gonzales, who died in the explosion. Barkley said DTI owner Walter Gonzalez and his wife, Doris, requested the memorial.

Lopez said Gonzales, his onetime co-worker, was a close friend whom he misses.

“He was a very good man,” Lopez said. “but most of all he was a godly man.”

After the explosion, Lopez was in a coma for more than a month, followed by nearly two months of hospitalization in a Las Vegas medical center burn unit and two months of outpatient care. He returned to Gardnerville in February — five months after his life changed forever.

Lopez spends much of his time these days in excruciating pain from numerous skin graft operations, rehabilitation and therapy on his twisted finger joints. The worst part, he said, is the never-ending itching the grafts bring. His scarred skin is also sensitive to heat so he can’t be in the sun too often. He faces at least two more years of rehabilitation and surgery.

Lopez receives $1,000 per month in workers’ compensation for his disability and Gonzalez has been paying the rent on his modest apartment.

Lopez said he realizes he could join the other victims in suing DTI and Gonzalez, but he has no plans to do so.

“He has always treated me good,” Lopez said. “We (employees) were treated more like family. Everyone had their own key (to the plant).

“I want to make it clear I know Walter should have had (proper) insurance (coverage for employees), but I don’t blame him like the others.”

Lopez said he is a changed man, not only physically, but mentally. He said while he is focusing on his rehabilitation, he also receives strength from his involvement in the Baptist Church.

“I’ve learned a lot of things,” he said. “Money is not everything. In this case, it seems like my partners (from) work are just consumed with getting as much money as they can.

“But I can’t forget the friendship (with my former boss) and it is not the right thing to do.”

More than anything, Lopez just wants to regain the use of his hand so he can return to work and support his wife.

“You just never know what is going to happen in life. I have no hard feelings,” he said. “Everything is different now.”

He said he used to live his life as everybody else, going to work, going home and doing the same thing the next day.

“Now life is about survival,” he said. “I just don’t want to go crazy between treatments and not knowing what the future holds.”

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