Emotionally shaken employees at Spokane’s Wastewater Treatment Plant on Wednesday remembered Mike Cmos Jr. as fun-loving and helpful, the kind of guy who would help you paint your house.
His body was recovered Wednesday morning near the bottom of a sludge tank that failed in a catastrophic accident on Monday.
Rescue firefighters, riding on a platform rigged to a crane, dropped into the digester tank about 11:15 a.m. to retrieve the body of the 24-year veteran maintenance mechanic.
Co-workers and some family members gathered at the plant for a prayer as Cmos’ body was taken away shortly before noon. A small bouquet of lilacs was placed atop the wall of the exposed tank where firefighters had made the recovery just minutes earlier.
“He could be your best friend in five minutes,” said a teary-eyed Lori Coon, a clerk at the plant.
She described the 46-year-old Cmos as “handsome, gregarious, kind and funny. He’s one of those people who is so warm, he affects people in a positive way,” she said, and he was among a group of workers Coon called “hard-working, knowledgeable people.”
“It’s like being a family here,” she said. “The only time people usually leave is because of retirement.”
Counselors were being made available to employees.
Plant Superintendent Tim Pelton, who suffered minor injuries in the accident, said workers were handling the loss as best they could. “Everybody has their own way of coping,” he said, and he was coping by “trying to do my best to make sure everything is safe and gets back to normal.”
Dale Arnold, city wastewater director, said Cmos had helped him paint his house years ago, and was unafraid when it came to climbing up a ladder.
Three firefighters from the department’s Technical Rescue Team descended some 30 feet into the tank that was torn open when its roof broke free and collapsed into the tank’s slurrylike contents on Monday afternoon. They were dressed in protective clothing and hooked to oxygen.
Once inside, the firefighters placed the body into a basket and moved it out of the tank through a small hatch opening at ground level along the Spokane River, officials said. The firefighters were lifted back out of the tank by the Hite crane a few minutes later.
Witnesses and officials said Cmos had climbed onto the roof of digester tank No. 3 after trouble was discovered there. He fell inside when its concrete roof separated violently under an apparent buildup of sludge and methane gas pressure. One city official said Cmos was most likely knocked unconscious and quickly overcome by escaping methane gas, a byproduct of sewage sludge treatment.
His body was found lying just above the roof where it came to rest largely intact near the bottom of the digester.
Two other workers were blown off the upper edge of the tank by the force of the escaping gas and sludge. Dan Evans, 52, was recovering Wednesday at Sacred Heart Medical Center from broken bones and an internal injury. Larry Michaels, 49, suffered minor injuries.
Pelton was standing near the tank when a wave of sewage, ejected by the collapsing roof, knocked him down, but did not injure him seriously.
Sludge stains were visible Wednesday afternoon across the railings, platforms, buildings and even the leaves of nearby trees. Some of the sewage went into the Spokane River on Monday. What remained on the ground in work areas was cleared away.
The cause of the accident remained under investigation, but overfilling appeared to be part of the problem, officials said.
Fire Department investigators were collecting witness statements and other information to assist the state Department of Labor and Industries, the lead agency in the investigation, said Fire Chief Bobby Williams.
Wastewater Director Arnold said, “I don’t know if there was any real warning. The failure happened very rapidly.”
Arnold said the investigation may well discover that a series of events or equipment problems led to the accident. Officials and investigators were looking at possible mechanical failures, computer malfunctions or breakdowns in metering equipment.
Roger Flint, director of public works and utilities, said Cmos and other workers had gone onto the tank to check on rising pressure in the tank. One of them reported seeing sewage leaking from a vent at the top, he said, and Cmos was on a ladderlike catwalk leading to the center of the roof where a valve is located.
“They went out to inspect the valve” just before the tank roof collapsed about 3 p.m. Monday, Flint said.
Plant workers had been pumping sludge out of digester tank No. 2 into tank No. 3 in order to perform routine maintenance on tank No. 2 when the failure occurred, he said.
Workers spent nearly 40 hours pumping sludge from the damaged tank before the body appeared near the bottom about 9:30 a.m. The discovery was announced to employees over the plant’s intercom. The news left workers in tears. They hugged and shared condolences.
Many plant workers had built close relationships over the years. Some stayed at the accident site overnight on both Monday and Tuesday to help if needed, but also to keep vigil, Arnold said.
Two pumps had broken during the sludge removal, and maintenance trucks with sewage pumps were brought to the scene to remove sludge with hoses placed into the tank through the lower-level hatch, officials said.
The removed sludge was processed in the plant’s dewatering and separation facility.
Officials were working on Wednesday to get the plant operating normally. It has three large digesters, only of two of which are needed at any one time for the plant to operate at full capacity, Flint said. The accident was not expected to affect services to utility users.
The 100-foot-diameter digesters stand about 30 feet tall from ground level along the riverbank. Another nine feet of tank extends below ground in a kind of cone shape for a total of about 40 feet. The tank’s roof, built from reinforced concrete about six inches thick, came to rest at the bottom of the tank where it narrows into a cone below ground. The roof, or lid, appeared tilted toward the river side. Cmos body was found near the edge on the river side of the tank, Williams said.
The digesters operate normally with 26 to 29 feet of sludge above their lower ground levels. The average operating volume is 2 million gallons, but total capacity is close to 2.25 million gallons, city officials said. As much as 200,000 gallons of sludge was estimated to have spilled during the accident.
Sludge is heated to 100 degrees as part of the process of recovering its water and rendering its solids safe. The contents had cooled by Wednesday, and the methane odor associated with it had diminished to a negligible level.
Williams said some of the firefighter equipment would be discarded because of contamination during the recovery.
Mayor Jim West ordered City Hall flags lowered to half staff after Cmos body was spotted Wednesday.
“This is something that hit city employees very hard,” West said.
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