Saving a life: DeWitt man who died will receive award for saving coworker

Saving a life: DeWitt man who died will receive award for saving coworker


Anne Dorpinghaus

DeWITT, Iowa — Despite his own severe burns from a billow of anhydrous ammonia, Robert Ryan dragged coworker Nathan Nissen up into a tank of water and held him under the life-saving water at a farm chemical station in the middle of rural Clinton County.

For his heroism after the freak accident that caused his own death, Ryan, 68, of DeWitt will posthumously receive the Governor's Lifesaving Award of Valor during the Iowa State Fair.

Ryan's widow, Charlene Ryan, and the couple's five daughters will accept the award in his memory Aug. 8 in Des Moines.

Ryan was nominated for his role in saving the life of Nathan Nissen, 24, of Welton in an anhydrous ammonia spill April 15 near Calamus.

Ryan died of his injuries April 28 in Iowa City. Nissen returned home last week after spending weeks in the burn unit at University Hospitals in Iowa City and undergoing rehabilitation at Covenant Memorial Hospital in Waterloo.

"No one really knows what happened that day," Charlene Ryan said.

Details about the accident are still sketchy three months later. A welded seam on the lower side of an anhydrous ammonia tank burst, releasing the fertilizer in a gaseous form and causing severe chemical burns to the two employees at the River Valley Cooperative anhydrous station. It is not known what caused the seam failure. What is known from witnesses is that Ryan acted heroically in the minutes to follow.

The Clinton County Sheriff's Department incident report notes that the first witness on the scene, a woman from Calamus, was driving west on U.S. 30 when she saw a cloud of fumes. By the time she drove to the site and parked, Nissen was already in a tank of water kept on site for emergency purposes. Ryan apparently instructed the woman to go into the office and call the 911 emergency phone number.

Ryan was able to speak for only a short time before a tracheotomy was performed by emergency responders. He communicated with family members by writing notes and nodding for the first week after the accident, so some details emerged then.

Charlene Ryan said the two workers had finished filling the 1,500-gallon field tank, also known as a nurse tank, from a larger supply tank. Ryan was standing on a platform above the tank and Nissen was hooking the field tank to a truck when the blast of chemicals occurred, throwing Nissen into the pickup and causing Ryan to stumble.

"I don't know if Nate was dazed or unconscious," Charlene Ryan said. Her daughter, Chris McClimon of DeWitt, asked her dad details about the accident. She asked if he lifted Nissen into the tank, and he said, no, he sort of dragged him up onto the platform and into the tank.

According to one witness, the elder man held Nissen under water to reduce the effects of the burns despite the fact that he too had burns on 65 percent of his body. The most serious burns were to both men's lungs. Ryan also had the presence of mind to turn off a main pump at the station.

"To me, it was just a father's reaction to take care of the younger kid," Charlene Ryan said. "I'm just thankful that Nate got through it as good as he did. I hope he continues to get better."

Ken and Connie Schnoor of Long Grove wanted Bob Ryan to be honored for his quick thinking and bravery. Before the accident, their daughter, Amy, was in the final weeks of preparations to marry Nissen on May 10.

On April 17, just two days after the accident, Connie Schnoor said wrote a letter to Gov. Tom Vilsack, describing how Ryan had assisted her future son-in-law.

"I just wanted the State of Iowa to recognize a good Iowa hero," Schnoor said.

The governor's office replied, telling Schnoor they had forwarded the letter to the Department of Public Safety for consideration for the Governor's Lifesaving Award. The awards were founded in the 1970s to honor everyday Iowans who act courageously to save another's life. The Award of Valor recognizes individuals who risked their own lives to save another.

A state trooper later contacted the Schnoors and asked for names of witnesses, who were interviewed. Eventually, Schnoor said they got a telephone call to say that Ryan had been unanimously selected.

When Charlene Ryan received a letter in late June telling her about the award, she was surprised and grateful.

"It was very nice of the Schnoors to do this," she said. All 10 of her grandchildren will be present at the fair when their grandfather is honored.

Nathan and Amy Nissen — who wed in the hospital five days later than they originally had planned — plan to attend the ceremony in August with their families.

Connie Schnoor said doctors at the burn unit at University Hospitals have called her son-in-law their "miracle" because no one with that extent of anhydrous burns has ever before survived.

"(Bob) did the right thing," Schnoor said. "Nathan wouldn't be here today without his help. I just wish he could be here to accept the award."

Contact the city desk at (563) 383-2245 or


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