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Lawsuit filed in asphalt explosion death

Lawsuit filed in asphalt explosion death

Lawsuit claims negligence in death of Joseph Nichols
Lawsuit filed in asphalt explosion death
A tanker full of fuel caught fire on Oct. 17, 2016, at Mohawk Asphalt Emulsions.
Photographer: Eric Jenks/For The Daily Gazette

GLENVILLE -- The widow of one of the workers killed in a 2016 explosion at the Mohawk Asphalt Emulsions plant has filed a lawsuit against the company and others charging negligence.

The suit, filed in state Supreme Court in Schenectady by Karen Nichols, seeks undetermined compensation for the death of Mohawk Asphalt worker Joseph Nichols, following the Oct. 17, 2016, blast. Nichols, 56, of the town of Amsterdam, died two days later from severe burns.

The lawsuit doesn't seek a specific figure for damages, and isn't required to, said Paul DiLorenzo, the Schenectady attorney whose firm is handling the case.

"It could be a substantial amount," he said.

Nichols, who had worked for the company for 24 years, was the first of two workers who died after the explosion, which happened as a paving mix was being loaded from a storage tank into a tank truck. Al Crowter, 42, of Mayfield, also died of burn injuries about two weeks after the explosion.

The lawsuit, which Karen Nichols filed as administratrix of her husband's estate, names Mohawk Asphalt, its parent company The Gorman Group of Albany, landowner The Cady Co. of Amsterdam, Unifirst Corp. of Wilmington, Massachusetts, which made the uniform Nichols was wearing, and Amerex Corp. of Trussville, Alabama, and Tri-City Fire Extinguisher of Green Island. All are accused of negligence.

The lawsuit alleges the uniform Nichols was wearing at the time of the explosion was flammable, and that a fire extinguisher malfunctioned when a co-worker tried to use it to extinguish flames on Nichols.

Frank O'Connor of Albany, the attorney for Mohawk Asphalt and Gorman, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The incident occurred at about 1:05 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, at the Mohawk Asphalt location off Freemans Bridge Road. Nichols was part of a crew loading a mixture of 50 percent kerosene and 50 percent asphalt into a tanker-trailer when the mixture became clogged in the transfer line. The lawsuit charges Nichols was directed to use a propane blowtorch to heat the line to loosen the clog when the mixture ignited and exploded.

Nichols was severely burned over much of his body and was taken to the Westchester Medical Center burn unit. He was a father of three and grandfather of two, according to his obituary.

DiLorenzo said his firm has a "good idea" of who ordered Nichols to use the blowtorch, and that is part of the negligence claim. The court papers don't name that person.

Following an investigation, the U.S. Occupation Safety and Health Administration cited Mohawk Asphalt for two "serious" violations: not taking precautions against having sources of ignition where flammable vapors are present, and not having employees wear proper personally protective uniforms while handling hot asphalt. The company, in May 2017, paid an OSHA fine of $17,745 and had corrected the issues, according to OSHA.

After another explosion in September 2017 -- the second in less than a year -- Mohawk Asphalt announced it will no longer make the asphalt-kerosene mix there. Nobody was hurt in the second blast, but it raised fresh questions about whether an asphalt plant should be located so close to the Water's Edge Lighthouse restaurant, a new Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel, and other businesses along Freemans Bridge Road.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Buchanan is overseeing the pre-trial discovery process.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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