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Co-owner of Adams business died of heart problem, early autopsy reveals

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ADAMS — The death of the co-owner of Berry Bros. Lumber Co. after a chemical incident Wednesday night is being attributed to a heart problem, according to an initial autopsy report.

The incident took place about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday as Gary J. Berry, 54, of Adams, and another employee handled chemicals at the site on Route 11. Mr. Berry died that night at Samaritan Medical Center, Watertown, as a result of what initially was thought to be a chemical reaction.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department Detective David J. Pustizzi said Thursday afternoon that an investigation was underway and that the results of an autopsy conducted Thursday may not be known for six to eight weeks.

However, Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agricultural coordinator and designated spokesman for the Berry family, said the family received initial results Thursday.

In addition to his work at the business, Mr. Berry was well-known in the community, serving for years as pastor of Woodville Congregational Church.

The chemicals from the incident were identified in a news release from Jefferson County Fire and Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer as a part of a product called “Bale Guard,” used in the agriculture industry. The product, which contains propionic acid, ammonium hydroxide, water, citric acid and dye, can cause severe inhalation problems and can deprive oxygen in the air.

Mr. Berry’s family issued a statement that said he also was handling diesel at the time of the incident. The employee who was with him at the time has not been identified.

The family expressed appreciation for the support received from the community.

“Thank you to everyone who has expressed their sympathy and concern for our family and employees of Berry Brothers Lumber,” the statement read. “The expression of concern and love for us is deeply moving and is helping us through this challenging time.”

With crews from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies clearing the scene, Mr. Plummer said there was no threat to public safety.

Mr. Berry co-owned the business, which produced bedding products for farm animals, with his brother Lee D.

According to those who knew him, Mr. Berry was a man devoted to his faith, family and the members of his church.

“He really cared about people, and I mean everybody,” said the Rev. Thomas W. Wilson, pastor of Smithville Baptist Church, who ordained Mr. Berry as a pastor. “The same guy you’d see at the mill is the same one you’d see at the pulpit.”

Mr. Berry also had a sense of humor, one that helped him connect to the congregation and increase its numbers.

“He wanted to be in your life; he wanted to help you,” the Rev. Mr. Wilson said. Mr. Berry also was chaplain of the Smithville Fire Department.

The business was rebuilding after a fire in April destroyed much of its equipment. That setback came after a large fire at the site in 2008 caused a similar level of damage.

“Gary’s strength came from the Lord. He trusted in God; he trusted there was a plan with everything in his life,” said K. Paul Murphy, who served as lay speaker while Mr. Berry was on sabbatical. “The fire was bad, but it wasn’t devastating. Life happens, and there’s a reason for it, and you have to look for the positives in things, and that was his outlook on it.”

Both the Rev. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Murphy praised Mr. Berry’s technical abilities, used at both his work at the business and with the Woodville church.

Mr. Matteson said Berry Bros. animal bedding products received high praise from local farms.

Within the tight-knit agriculture community, Mr. Matteson said, there was a lot of support for the brothers after the April fire, support that likely will rally again.

“I believe the agriculture community will be there to help them as well,” he said.

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