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Man killed in Adams hazmat accident

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ADAMS — A co-owner of Berry Bros. Lumber Co. on Route 11 died Wednesday night as a result of a chemical reaction in a hazardous materials incident at the site.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department confirmed early today that Gary J. Berry, 54, of Adams, died at Samaritan Medical Center, Watertown, after the accident, which occurred about 5:30 p.m. Emergency crews shut down Route 11 for five hours Wednesday night as they tried to determine what happened and what chemicals were involved.

An employee and Mr. Berry were working about 200 feet behind a building on the property at 9124 Route 11 in the town of Lorraine when chemicals came in contact with each other in a 55-gallon plastic drum, said Robert D. Simpson, Jefferson County deputy fire coordinator.

Talking to reporters about 9 p.m., Mr. Simpson, who also serves as the public information officer for the Adams Fire Department, said the Jefferson County Hazardous Materials Response Team still did not know what chemicals were involved in the accident, what caused it or exactly what the responders were dealing with.

“The operation, I believe, was just about to begin,” Mr. Simpson said during an impromptu press conference down the road from the former lumber yard.

A section of Route 11, between F.M. Clark Drive and Grove Street, was closed while the hazmat team cleaned up the chemicals, Mr. Simpson said. As a precaution, neighbors were told to stay inside Wednesday night, he said.

The fatality struck a business, owned by Mr. Berry and his brother, Lee D. Berry, that has been plagued by misfortune. The company, which now makes animal bedding, was heavily damaged by a massive fire in April. Another fire in June 2008 destroyed the entire work site.

On Wednesday night, it appeared Mr. Berry and the unidentified employee were emptying the chemical remnants from one 55-gallon drum into another when the chemical reaction occurred outdoors, Mr. Simpson said.

The company obtains the recycled plastic drums through various sources, so the previous contents may not have been known, he said.

“We still don’t really know what happened,” he said, adding that officials were talking to the employee to ascertain what led to the accident.

The employee called 911 for what authorities initially thought was a medical emergency, but it was quickly determined to be a hazmat situation after ambulance and first responders arrived, Mr. Simpson said.

With subzero temperatures Wednesday night, the hazmat team was expected to have a difficult night because it works mainly with water to decontaminate the site, Mr. Simpson said.

It also makes it more dangerous working in such low temperatures, he said.

It entails two members of the team working “in the hot zone,” which consists of about 200 feet, and two others “in the warm zone” who decontaminate them after they come out, Mr. Simpson said.

Even though it was New Year’s Day, it’s “an everyday operation,” with some kind of work occurring on a daily basis, Mr. Simpson said.

The Lorraine and Adams fire departments, South Jefferson Ambulance, state police and Watertown City Fire Department also responded.

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