It was the worst day of his life.
Randy Anderson said he remembers the frightful day like it was yesterday.
Great Bend’s Anderson was 15 years old at the time when he lost his father to a tragic oilfield accident.
Anderson’s father, Robert M. Anderson, was 45 years old, and Ellinwood’s Jim Voth was 18 years old when they died from asphyxiation from the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas on a Hodgeman County property in August of 1968.
The 1968 double fatality in Hodgeman County was strikingly similar to the tragedy that claimed two lives Monday in Barton County.
Two Barton County men died of asphyxiation Monday from the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas, a by-product from the production of oil and natural gas. Hydrogen sulfide causes respiratory paralysis and is highly toxic.
Just like Monday’s tragedy, the men were working on a saltwater disposal system in 1968. The men were working in a well pit six feet deep when the lethal hydrogen sulfide gas developed.
“When I heard about what happened, it opens up old wounds that took me more than 30 years to get over,” Anderson said. “It changes your life forever. I felt cheated when it happened to me. My heart goes out to them. I thought of their families and how terrifying and terrible that is. I feel their pain.”
Anderson said the initial mourning period will be eased by friends and family, but the loss never disappears. He said he plans to help the families in whatever way he is able.
He said he wishes he had used some professional counseling to help deal with the loss.
“I was hurting my dad’s memory by not letting it go. I couldn’t handle the loss for years,” he said. “The hardest part is acceptance. I finally turned to religion and God. I was able to let my dad go and accept Jesus Christ.”
Anderson understood that his father died as a hero who helped rescue a young man.
“As I got older, I realized that my dad was the greatest, someone who was really special,” he said. “He rescued one man and tried to help another. That’s a very proud memory.”
Ness City’s Don Leiker, 63, owner of Leiker Dirt Construction, has worked in oil and gas production his whole life.
Forty-years later, Leiker remembers a stifling hot day with no wind, ingredients that produced lethal conditions. Several of the men were fortunate to survive, including Leiker who was hospitalized for four days in Dodge City.
“You can tell by the smell, it’s no good,” Leiker said. “You knew it was dangerous. We didn’t have detectors back then and I don’t remember that we had masks.”
Leiker, 18 at the time, helped rescue several men by tying ropes around them and dragging them to safety. He was helped himself by Robert Hembree.
“We pulled several men out of there and we knew one of the men was in really bad shape,” Leiker said. “I knew I had to get out of there myself. I got pretty lucky.”
On a chance meeting in Ness City, he was reunited more than a dozen years ago with Gary Gray, who also survived the tragedy.
Leiker said he has always remembered that day.
“Anytime you are around gas tank batteries or disposal systems, you’ve got to be careful and think carefully,” he said. “You’ve got to be aware of hydrogen sulfide gas at all times.”
Hembree was working for Hembree Tank Service when he assisted in the rescue operation. The 82-year-old Hembree recalls that Robert Anderson died in a heroic effort.
“I’ll never forget it. I remember Bob Anderson tried to get one of his men out of there, but the fumes came back and got him,” he said. “Everyone maintained cellars back then. There were no detectors or safety equipment like there is today.”
Hembree is happy more safety measures are in place today.
Oilfields where hydrogen sulfide has been detected are often indicated with safety signage.
Some companies requires employees to employ air safety equipment in confined spaces. Safety would also be provided by an air respirator with a full facepiece, helmet or hood or a self-contained breathing apparatus with a full facepiece.
“You can’t afford to be careless — it’s life or death,” Hembree said.