As Robert Newton prepares to observe Farm Safety Week (Sept. 15-21), he warns others to take precautions while working around anhydrous ammonia.
It was March 7, 2016, when Newton was severely burned during an anhydrous explosion. He was changing out an anhydrous pump at Troy Elevator’s Troy location on that day.
“The bearings were out on the pump,” he said. “I bled it out and thought it was empty. I started taking it apart and had the bolts loose. As I was taking the bolts out by hand, I found the last one was still tight. I grabbed for a wrench and she blew!
“There was pressure on the backside of the pump, and something locked up to keep it from going back through the pump as it should have.”
Newton was only two or three feet away from the pump when it blew. He suffered burns to his arms, face, head, and eyes.
“I went straight to the water and rinsed my head and face for four or five minutes,” he said. “Because I was wearing a jacket, I didn’t think about washing my arms. I ended up with the worst burns on my arms and wrist.
Newton was fortunate that an employee of Stutsman, Inc. of Hills, a supplier of agricultural products, was on the scene. “He asked if I wanted him to call anybody. I rinsed my head some more, then went back to see if the pump was still leaking. Finally, after five or ten minutes I said, ‘I think you better call 911.’
Deputy Sheriff Josh Sinnott was the first one on the scene. He left his car in Troy and accompanied Newton in the ambulance to Davis County Hospital.
Robert said when he arrived at the emergency room, it seemed like there were 700 people there — the ambulance crew, Sinnott, and many hospital staff members.
“The helicopter (from University of Iowa) was on the way before they ever saw me in the emergency room,” Newton added.
The first thing the emergency crew did was to insert a tube down Robert’s throat. “They were afraid my throat might swell and I wouldn’t be able to breathe,” he said.
Robert’s wife Faith, driving by herself, followed the ambulance to Iowa City. “Tim (Frasher, Pastor of Bloomfield United Methodist Church) prayed on the phone while I was driving,” Faith said. “I felt strangely calm.
“When I arrived in Iowa City, Kathy and Brownie Brown were there and helped me find Robert’s room in the burn unit.”
The scariest part of the ordeal for Robert and Faith ended up being the damage to his eyes.
“He could see after it happened and initially in the hospital’s ER when I came in. A day or two later, he wasn’t seeing as well,” Faith said.
An ophthalmologist (Dr. Greiner) at the University heard about Robert’s incident and went to his room to see him. “The surface layer on Robert’s eyes was gone, and he placed opaque lenses over his eyes for protection,” Faith said.
“While the lenses were in, Robert kept asking me, ‘Will I see again?’ Everything was just a blur to him — he couldn’t see TV at all,” Faith added.
“I could get around the house,” Robert said, “but I had to feel my way around.”
Two weeks later, the opaque lenses, which were made of amniotic membrane, were removed.
Faith remembers the moment when the lenses came off and Robert realized he could see again. “He looked at me with tears in his eyes,” she said.
Though Robert could see again, a scar does remain in the center of the back of his right eye — the eye that was facing the pipe.
While the couple was worried about Robert’s vision, they were also caring for the burns on Robert’s arms and head.
After five days in the U of I Burn Unit, Robert was released from the hospital and it was up to Faith to assist with wound care.
“We had to take the bandages off every day and take a rough washcloth and scrub the wounds on his arms and head with an antibacterial soap. He nearly passed out when we scrubbed his arms the first day,” Faith said. “It was horrible for the first week. I also had to shave his head every day.”
Robert’s right wrist was the most severely burned area — probably due to the sleeve band on his jacket — and required a skin graft.
“Actually his arms looked better and healed quicker than the area on his leg where the skin graft was taken,” Faith said.
Both are thankful for the support of their church family at the time of the accident and throughout the recovery period. “It meant a lot to know the Men’s Monday Night Bible Study Group was praying for us,” Faith said.
“Our church family was a big plus,” Robert added.
Robert has noticed a couple of residual effects from the accident — he can’t taste or smell.
“He’s a fast eater; he doesn’t savor his food. I think not smelling bothers him more than not tasting,” Faith says.
“I know what I liked before the accident, so that’s what I eat now,” Robert added.
Both seem more concerned about Robert’s loss of smell than his loss of taste.
“Not smelling is dangerous around the anhydrous plant,” Robert said. “However, I can tell from breathing when the air is different; so if there is a leak, I get out. It can take your breath away in an instant.”
Robert admits that he is now more cautious than ever around the plant. He always checks the flag to see which direction the wind is blowing and always makes certain there is enough breeze to move the vapor out. He also stresses the importance of having a second person on the premises wherever there is potential for danger.
Going into the harvest season, Newton reminds farmers to exercise care in all they do. “Make sure your equipment works properly,” he said. “Double check to make sure chains, belts, and bearings are all in good condition.”