Widow sues supplier in 2003 tank explosion

Widow sues supplier in 2003 tank explosion

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Kay Luna

CLINTON, Iowa — The widow of a DeWitt man who died after an anhydrous ammonia explosion last year, and a second worker who survived, are suing the companies that supplied and provided training about the chemical and owned the tank that burst open.

Charlene Ryan, Nathan Nissen and his wife, Amy, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Clinton County District Court against S/M Service Co., Heritage Trails Associates, Cenex Harvest States Cooperatives and CF Industries.

S/M Service is the parent company of River Valley Cooperative, where Robert Ryan, 68, and Nathan Nissen, 24, of Welton, were working when the anhydrous ammonia tank ruptured in rural Clinton County.

The lawsuit blames the companies for failing to warn users about periodic inspections and testing of anhydrous ammonia tanks or the dangers of the chemical that killed Ryan and seriously burned Nissen.

The suit also blames the companies for failing to determine whether their customers were properly qualified to handle anhydrous ammonia.

Court documents identify S/M Service as the owner of the tank that ruptured and Cenex and CF Industries as the retailers, suppliers and/or manufacturers of the anhydrous ammonia. The suit also claims that Heritage Trails did not provide adequate anhydrous ammonia training to the plaintiffs' employer.

Tom Leiting, the general manager of River Valley Cooperative, said the company has been supportive of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into what caused the spill and has reviewed its safety programs and procedures since the accident.

"I have tons of empathy for the families that were affected by it," he said.

Charlene Ryan and representatives from Heritage Trails in Anamosa declined comment on  the lawsuit. The Nissens, their attorney, Donald G. Beattie of Des Moines, and officials with Cenex and CF Industries could not be reached by the QUAD-CITY TIMES for comment.

Robert Ryan died 13 days after the April 15, 2003, accident at River Valley's filling station east of Calamus, where he and Nissen were working when an anhydrous ammonia tank burst.

Ryan and Nissen were burned by the fumes and Ryan helped save the younger man's life.

Ryan dragged his co-worker into an emergency water tank and held him under water, then insisted the younger man be the first one airlifted from the site.

Charlene Ryan accepted Gov. Tom Vilsack's Lifesaving Award of Valor on behalf of her husband in July 2003.

Nissen spent 86 days in the hospital, recovering from severe burns, but since has returned to work and has married.

Kay Luna can be contacted at

(563) 243-5039 or kluna@qctimes.com.

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