Local News

Easley Meets With Survivors Of Kinston Factory Explosion

Posted February 12, 2003

— One mother looks forward to bringing her daughter home soon. Another thanks God for her son's steady recovery. A teary-eyed father describes his son's recent downturn.

Two weeks after a factory explosion that killed four people, Gov. Mike Easley heard disparate stories of recovery Wednesday from the families of victims who remain at North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center.

James "Red" Edwards politely and patiently answered questions about his son, James L. Edwards Jr., who spent 22 years working at the West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. plant in Kinston.

The medical fittings factory was destroyed in an explosion and fire Jan. 29.

The younger Edwards, 45, remains unconscious in critical condition, breathing with the help of a ventilator and relying on a dialysis machine in place of his failed kidneys.

"We're looking for him to come out of it," his father said. "Each day is another day of grace and another day of healing."

Edwards said his son had come to relieve a co-worker for lunch at a rubber mixing machine near where investigators believe the explosion occurred. The younger Edwards had been at his post for about 45 minutes before the explosion, Red Edwards said tearfully while Easley stood behind him, his hands resting on Edwards' shoulders.

Investigators have said tentatively that a mix of dust and air fueled the explosion, sparking a fire that burned for days and leaving regulators to untangle the mystery of what ignited the blast.

While they look back, Mary Ratliff, the mother of Sharedenna Ratliff, was thinking ahead to Thursday, when her daughter was scheduled for release. Sharedenna Ratliff suffered mostly second-degree burns on her face, arms and legs.

Sharedenna Ratliff, who turned 30 on Tuesday, will be the first of the 10 patients admitted to the burn center two weeks ago to return home. Five patients remained in critical condition, one was in serious condition and three were in good condition Wednesday.

One patient, Kevin M. Cruiess, 22, of Kinston, died two days after the explosion. Three people were killed the day it happened.

"It doesn't take but a split second for the injury to happen, but it takes a long time to get better," said Dr. Anthony Meyer, chief of surgery at UNC Hospitals, which includes the burn center.

Many patients won't remember their early recovery, he said.

Mary Ratliff said her daughter remembers the fire coming toward her, but little else right now. Both of them focused on the recovery ahead.

"She's getting better one day at a time," Mary Ratliff said. "She's doing for herself. We don't have to wait on her hand and foot. She talks a lot, but that's her. She's always been bold."

Easley had planned to visit Sharedenna Ratliff but missed the chance because she needed medical attention at the time he was visiting. The governor did get to see David Williams, whose doctors have told him he should go home within a week.

Williams' pink, burned skin was smeared with an antibacterial ointment and bandages covered his arms and legs.

"I can shower myself and my wife is going to be training ... to bathe me," Williams told Easley.

Easley also visited Robert Fuller, who was confined in a chair with casts on his arms and legs. His facial burns were similar to Williams'.

Easley asked what the hardest part of his ordeal had been.

"Patience," said Fuller, 29.

Kathleen Fuller said she and her son have prayed and talked of grace during his hospitalization.

"It's been mighty hard but we look at the positive part of it," she said. "It could have been worse. God could have taken them all."

Kathleen Fuller said her son's medications have caused him at times to see bugs swarming over his hospital bed and an imaginary man in the room.

Easley also spoke of a patient who has flashbacks and asks for medical workers to put out the fire.

Kathleen Fuller said she doesn't question her son about those visions, believing that it's unhealthy to focus on those thoughts or to ask him to recall the day of the fire.

"We talk about the fact that he's alive. We pray a lot," she said. "He knows and I know that that's the only thing that can help him through this."

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