Columns / Editorial Comments

A mother’s fight

Son’s death on a rig: electrocution or drug overdose?

August 1, 2012
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Tammy Duncan hails from Amma, West Virginia, an unincorporated town in Roane County, smack in the center of the state. Population: 294. Median age is 41, and average household income is $25,208.


Kerry Duncan

Tammy, 38, says, “I’m a country girl.” If there is trouble, “I ain’t going to walk away,” she says. “I’m going for my guns.”

Tammy has run into more than her share of trouble in the past year. On July 22, 2011, her 20-year-old son Kerry Edward was killed while dismantling a drilling rig in southwestern Pennsylvania, near Waynesboro. One month later, she and her husband Kerry G. Duncan, 59, lost an infant granddaughter who was 16 days old when she died in a children’s hospital in Cincinnati.

And then her house burned down.

The deepest cut

But losing her “best friend in the world,” as she describes her son, has by far been the toughest test. Working in a three-man crew in the wee small hours of the morning, Kerry disappeared. A co-worker called out for him and went to find him. He stumbled over something in the dark; it was Kerry’s body.

Immediately after Kerry’s death, the Greene County coroner said he might have been electrocuted by a fuel pump. But the coroner’s final determination, issued a month later, said Kerry died of an accidental drug overdose. The report listed morphine and other drugs allegedly found in his system. Officially, the cause of death was “acute combined drug toxicity.”

Tammy makes it very clear to you she believes the coroner’s report is a lie, a cover-up.

“My son never did drugs,” she told a reporter for the Roane County Reporter. “I just don’t think that. I know it a hundred and ten percent,” she told the reporter.

“He’d give you the last dollar he had, unless he knew it was for drugs,” she said. “He never ever took his own medication when it was prescribed for him.”

Challenging environment

Ironically, on the day Kerry died, U.S. Marshals and local police arrested seven people in a Roane County drug investigation for allegedly selling prescription pills. In February 2012, West Virginia state police reported more than one meth lab a day was being discovered.

This is a rough–and-tumble environment to raise a family. It’s a tough environment to run a business. In a rural, sparsely populated county, you have slim pickins for a labor pool. Your workforce is tested by poverty, often a lack of quality education, and a lurking criminal element.

 This is hard country for safety preaching.

Talks about “safety cultures” and “cultures of compassion” don’t resonate in Roane County.

Transformational leadership — what’s that?

Winning the hearts and minds of workers — low wages and job insecurity won’t win you much “share of mind.”

An engaged workforce? Where’s the observation and feedback at three in the morning for a crew dismantling an oil rig?

Don’t believe there is much access to online safety training.

Don’t believe many Roane County businesses are audited to safety management systems such as OHSAS 18001. There are 19 VPP sites in West Virginia; 7 run by Allegheny Energy Supply; two by Bayer; one by Union Carbide; one by US Gypsum, and one by Weyerhaeuser.

All are larger enterprises than Target Drilling, Inc., where Kerry Duncan worked. Still, on Target Drilling’s web site the company states: “Target Drilling Inc. (TDI) believes that our employees are our backbone. Consequently, the safety and well-being of TDI’s employees, on and off the job 24/7, is, has been, and always will be TDI’s primary goal.”

“I can’t replace him”

Tammy Duncan says OSHA disputed the coroner’s ruling by filing a 12-page report of its own. On OSHA’s web site, the agency says Kerry Duncan died from possible electric shock.

“I’d just disappear somewhere if not for the fight to clear Kerry’s name,” says his mother. “If not for this fight for him, his death would’ve destroyed this family.”

“I’ve never really been told everything. I don’t know if I could believe it now anyway. The company never called me.

“The day he died I felt like I’m only here by myself. I feel completely lost. People say I could have another baby. No way. You could have all the babies in the world. Kerry was one in a million. I can’t replace him.

“I don’t sleep. I’m running on adrenalin all the time. It still eats away at me. You never forget the death pictures.

“I knew his job was dangerous. But people ought to know that when a son or husband or wife or daughter walks out the door to go to work, you never know what will happen.”

Close but yet so far

Amma, West Virginia is about 300 miles due west of Washington, DC. A five-hour drive on Interstate 66-E. In reality, the distance could be from the earth to the moon. In Amma, a 38-year-old mother, lost and sleep-deprived, fights for answers and closure for her son’s death. In Washington, OSHA bobs and weaves with the Chamber of Commerce, sits on regs in an election year, scratches its head over updating 45-year-old exposure limits, and boasts of 200 million web site visitors a year. I don’t think Tammy Duncan would be impressed.

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