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Man burned in degreaser explosion files lawsuit

Published Aug. 27, 2005

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

When the small canister of degreaser exploded in James Heinke's garage, neighbors' windows shook two blocks away.

The Valrico home's foundation cracked and witnesses saw Heinke blown outside, where he rolled in flames on the grass.

Startled from her bath, his wife Leslie came running outside wrapped in a towel.

"I'm hurt really bad," Heinke told her.

In the days that followed, Heinke learned he had burns to 90 percent of his body, many of them severe. Doctors didn't think he would live. Seven months and $4-million in medical expenses later, Heinke is slowly getting better.

On Tuesday, lawyers for Heinke, his wife and two children filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the company that manufactured the degreaser, NCH Corp., and Heinke's former employer Nortrax Equipment Co.

"No one at Nortrax ever told him how lethal this stuff could be," said Paul Antinori, one of the lawyers representing the Heinkes. "And the canisters were not properly labeled."

Officials with NCH of Irving, Texas, and Nortrax, which has a site in Wesley Chapel where Heinke worked as a mechanic on John Deere equipment, declined to comment about the lawsuit.

The suit claims that Heinke, 26, used a degreaser the company gave him called Hi Power, which consisted of chemicals including hexane, methanol and methyl pentane blended with alcohol.

The company transferred the Hi Power from 55-gallon drums into small, high pressure Shur Shot containers for their employees to use, the suit states. Employees were allowed to take home company trucks, which were equipped with Shur Shot canisters.

Sometimes, the employees used Hi Power to clean their tools, boots and hands, but the suit alleges that the company never trained Heinke in the proper use of Hi Power, nor did officials with the company tell him how flammable it was.

On June 23, Heinke used Hi Power to clean his uniforms in his garage. A spark from the air conditioner or an unknown static charge ignited the fumes and triggered an explosion. Officials at NCH should have known the product was "defective and unreasonably dangerous," the suit alleges.

After the explosion, lying on the grass in his front yard, Heinke knew he was in bad shape. He had thoughts of not going on. Then he saw his 2-year-old son Jacob come outside. He said he vowed to himself to fight.

The first night after the explosion, doctors at Tampa General Hospital told Mrs. Heinke that her husband would not survive. She heard the same warning the second night and the third. And then, she said, they told her he wouldn't last the week and then the month.

Heinke battled the pain and the infections. Mrs. Heinke did not like the care he was receiving at Tampa General. Her husband did not seem to be getting better, she said. And the doctors wanted to do more and more surgeries, mostly skin grafts.

"It just didn't feel right," she said.

After three months, she found a bed for her husband in the renowned burn unit at the Doctor's Hospital in Augusta, Ga.

Within weeks, Heinke began getting better, eating solid food and drinking water, his wife said. Mrs. Heinke stayed in a nearby motel, visiting her husband for hours every day. The infections came and went, and the pain was constant, but Heinke began feeling better.

Three months after arriving in Augusta, the doctors said it was time for him to go home.

Heinke is still re-establishing a relationship with both his children, who were too young to visit the burn unit. Two-year-old Jacob had stopped talking much after the explosion. But soon after his father arrived home, he began again. Heinke said he still cannot lift Jacob, but he can play with him up on the couch.

His nerve endings are slowly healing, which is progress, but it also means he can feel more pain, he said. He takes about a dozen drugs, and his skin itches and feels taut from the burns. Heinke described the feeling like always being in a wetsuit.

His speech is still diminished by having a tube in his throat for six months. He cannot walk without help, and his legs have open sores. His wife spends 30 minutes to an hour twice a day changing the dressings.

"I wouldn't be alive without her," he said.

Antinori said Mrs. Heinke was a savior through it all. She stayed on top of the doctors and did not give up hope. He described the ordeal as the "ultimate love story."

"She was only 23 years old but, man, she should be the role model for every young woman," he said. "Forget Britney Spears."

_ Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or