Staff Sgt. James Tyler “Ty” Grotjan died last July after he inhaled hydrogen sulfide down a manhole, lost consciousness and fell off a ladder, according to an Air Force investigation report released Friday.
Grotjan, 26, was a water and fuel systems maintenance airman with the 4th Civil Engineer Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, who was assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. He and five other airmen were preparing to clear out a clogged sewage line on July 8 when a fiberglass manhole cover fell down the roughly 17-foot shaft. The report said “there was a noticeable smell when the cover was removed.”
The team discussed how they might retrieve the cover, which needed to happen before they could start clearing the line. But before they finished coming up with a plan, Grotjan got his gloves from his truck and climbed down into the manhole. He grabbed the cover and started climbing back up.
“About one-third of the way up, he dropped the cover, began to hyperventilate, suffered a rapid loss of consciousness, and fell from the ladder,” according to the ground accident investigation report, which was released by Air Combat Command. “By then, he had been in the manhole for less than a minute.”
The rest of the team immediately called a rescue team, and two firefighters wearing protective equipment and breathing apparatuses descended. They found Grotjan’s skin was blue, he was unresponsive, not breathing, and had a weak or faint pulse. Before long, they could not detect any pulse.
The rescue team above assembled a tripod, lifted Grotjan out — he had been in the manhole for about 20 minutes in all —immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation and loaded him into an ambulance. Medical personnel restored his heartbeat, but he remained unresponsive and unable to breathe, and medical tests showed no signs of brain activity. Three days later, he was airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, but his condition did not improve. He was pronounced dead and removed from life support on July 12.
The report said Grotjan died of anoxic brain injury, or lack of oxygen to the brain, and hypoxemic cardiac arrest.
Grotjan was from Connecticut, and was about two months into a six-month deployment at the time of his death.
Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that smells strongly of rotten eggs and can be particularly dangerous when inhaled, leading to the “knockdown effect,” or abrupt loss of consciousness and falling. Several tests after the accident showed the lower two-thirds of the manhole had at least enough hydrogen sulfide to to be immediately dangerous, and possibly much more.
The base was also under “Black Flag” heat conditions that day, with temperatures reaching 117 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.