One year later: Gravel Pit tragedy

(WJTV) – June 3rd, 2016 was the day two men were buried in Copiah County when part of the gravel pit they were working in collapsed. As we near the anniversary, WJTV takes a look back at what went wrong, what a federal investigation uncovered, and how the families of the men who died are coping.

Friday, June 3rd was a regular work day for 56-year-old Dee Hemphill and 24-year-old Emmitt Shorter. The men got to work at Green Brothers gravel around 6 am – with Hemphill supervising the shift. So begins a 35 page report from the United States Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration – or MSHA for short.

Hemphill with his wife, Patti.
Shorter with his daughter, Za’Riyah.

 

The men got to work at Green Brothers gravel around 6 am – with Hemphill supervising the shift. So begins a 35-page report from the United States Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration – or MSHA for short.

FULL REPORT: Read the full report from MSHA here

Hemphill assigned himself, Shorter and another worker to load and transport material out of Johnson pit in the northeast corner of the mine. At 11:25 am, Hemphill was loading Shorter’s haul truck when the East wall of the pit began to break. Sand and clay breached the wall and engulfed the excavator that Hemphill was in and the truck shorter was driving.

911 calls went out at 11:30 am. Emergency responders got to Green Brothers 5 minutes later. Copiah County EMA Director Randle Drane says when he got the call he thought the gravel pit would be dry and the men would be out by the time he responded, “But once I got on scene and saw the actual sludge and the way they were buried, you know, it was something I’d never seen. I had no clue.”

That’s when Drane called Mississippi Emergency Management. MSHA was also called, but they decided the miners could not be reached because the ground was unstable. So they built an access road to get to the equipment. The process went into the night.

Drane says, “You didn’t know if there was any dry material under the sludge. You just didn’t know what you had. And you can’t just send someone out there because our job is lifesaving. And you’ve already had an accident so you don’t want to put anybody else’s lives in danger. So you actually have to sit back and make a plan to attack the situation you have.”

On June 4th, a crane arrived to lift the equipment out of the pit. But by June 5th, rescue workers knew there was too much material in the pit and they wouldn’t be able to pull the equipment or the men out. Instead, they pumped the mud out.

Officials would later tell us, 100,000 tons of sludge had poured into the pit. Through it all family members stood by.

Michelle Newell, the mother of Shorter’s daughter, says she couldn’t stand being there, “I couldn’t take it. Just being able to look at all that mud and sand and stuff and knowing he was down there and there wasn’t nothing I could do. I only went one day. I couldn’t go. So I just stayed by the phone, waiting on everybody to call me. I couldn’t stay out there. I don’t see how people could stay out there. Not being able to help him and seeing the top of that little track hoe up under the, it was just too much.”

Shorter’s daughter, Za’Riyah was away from home, visiting family when the collapse happened. Michelle says, “She didn’t know what was going on and I had to get her a flight out the next day. She was in Washington and when she got off the plane the first thing she asked is ‘Ma, where’s my daddy?’ ‘Ma, call my daddy.'”

Michelle says she never gave up hope that Emmitt might be found alive, “I couldn’t tell her because believe it or not when they’d been down for so long I was still holding on to faith. I was like, his truck’s still on. He’s still making a way. He’s going to pull through. I still didn’t tell her.”

Rumors fueled the hope that Emmitt might be found alive. Drane says someone hacked Emmitt’s Facebook account and rumors spread that he was sending texts from inside his buried truck. Drane says, “There’s just no way. You couldn’t even get a signal when we were down in the pit. And you know somebody that does that, that’s just evil. Plum evil. And what it does to the family, that’s the worst of it.”

In reality, Emmitt was killed instantly. Copiah County Coroner Ellis Stuart says Emmitt died of blunt trauma to his neck. Hemphill also died immediately from blunt force injuries.

Patti and Dee Hemphill were together for 25 years. 20 of those he worked off and on at the gravel pit and Patti says he loved his job, “You know it was like this couldn’t be Dee. This couldn’t be happening because he was all about safety. Not only of his self but of everybody in his crew.”

Patti says she knew Dee was dead when she got the call because she had seen the gravel pit for herself.

“We used to, on Saturday’s me and Dee would ride around and he would show me what he’d done when it was closed down,” Patti says. “He would drive around and show me what he’d been doing and how it looked and then he showed me the sludge ponds. Well there were like three sludge ponds and I said, ‘Well, what are they good for?’ and he said nothing. He says you’ve got to be very careful not to get near one because it’s like concrete. If you touch it, it will be just like concrete.”

By June 6th, more pumps and crews arrive. On June 7th, enough mud was pumped out to get in the haul truck but it would be three more days before Shorter was found.

On June 8th, the excavator was found and around 10 that night a body was found in the cab. The Copiah County Coroner confirmed that Dee Hemphill was the worker. His body wouldn’t be removed until the next morning – as crews doubled their effort to find shorter.

Pumping continued June 9th and on June 10th rescue crews with radar and cadaver dogs continued their search for Shorter’s body.

Drane says the dogs were loaded into buckets and lowered over the gravel pit, “It was just too unstable and too unsafe so they had to get in the basket and be hoisted over the location to try and, what she actually did was take a piece of pipe and sticking it in the ground to hopefully let the gases from the body. So that’s how they had to do it.”

Piper, a cadaver dog used in the gravel pit.

 

Emmitt’s body was found that night but wasn’t removed until the next morning, June 11th, ending the 9-day recovery effort. “It was a Godsend that we were able to find Mr. Shorter,” says Drane.

“When they told me that they had pulled him up and he was gone, I had to tell her,” Michelle says, talking about breaking the news to Za’Riyah. “She broke down and wanted to know why her Daddy, out of all the Daddy’s in the world, it had to be her Daddy and that’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Za’Riyah turned 6 years old in April. She says she and her Daddy played football and basketball together. She describes Emmitt as funny and sweet. He had nicknames for her like Sweet Pea and Boo-Boo.

“During the day we laugh. We play basketball. She has me on her trampoline, her go-cart, her dirt bike just like I’m her little friend and I can never tell her no because on weekends she had that special bond with her Daddy,” says Michelle. “But I can say her Papaw and her Uncles are doing a great job. You agree? Papaw will have her one weekend. Her uncle will have her another weekend. They doing a great job with her.”

On June 20th, MSHA inspected the accident scene and interviewed employees. Their report shows the accident happened because the mine operator failed to ensure the pit embankment was substantially constructed. There were no barricades or warning signs in place to prevent access to the hazardous area of the pit. The mining operation didn’t ensure wall, bank or slope stability. And examinations and corrective actions weren’t implemented to ensure the safety of the miners.

The conclusion of the report reads, in part, that the mine operator failed to protect miners from obvious hazards. The report also states that neither Hemphill nor Shorter had the required training.

Green Brothers was given 6 citations after the accident. Michelle has seen the report, “I just wish it could have been done better. I wish they could have followed the right procedures in doing everything and handling their business out there. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened like this today if they would have done everything right and got everything right. It wouldn’t have happened.”

WJTV reached out to Green Brothers, but our request for an interview was denied.

READ MORE: Green Bros. inspection reports 2015-2017

After visiting the gravel pit, MEMA Executive Director Lee Smithson would call the accident an “unprecedented event.”

“That week and a couple of days will stand out in my mind forever because it was my first event,” says MEMA External Affairs Officer Ray Coleman. “Two gentlemen did lose their lives. Family members are still hurting to this day. And I understand that completely. But it was an event unlike any other in my professional life and I will never forget it for sure.”

Coleman had only been on the job 2 weeks when he was called to Crystal Springs. He stayed for the duration of the recovery and acknowledges that many involved in the operation wish they could have done something more, something better.

“You know a lot of those things that happened was the first time a lot of those emergency responders had ever seen something like that – having to build a road, having to have that multi-agency coordination on a federal, state and local level. I would like to tell you would, could have done it differently. I believe that we can do it differently now because we have what we call after action reports, corrective actions, after every incident after every disaster, you’re going to find out what you can do better.”

“You never will understand,” says Drane. “You never will know exactly what happened because unfortunately it was a tragic accident and there’s no one to tell.”

Amid the tragedy, Drane says the knowledge gained last year could help if something like this ever happens again, “Fortunately, if it ever does happen somewhere in the state, at least someone has some knowledge of how to start.”

“Things haven’t been followed. Hopefully, they’re following them now,” says Dee Hemphill’s nephew, Tony. “You know, it’s like me and his wife were talking and if his death changed the culture, the safety culture, of the gravel pit or the mining industry then he would be up there laughing right now because he would say ‘Well, look what I did.'”

The accident left 2 grieving families that are now connected by tragedy. Last June, Tony told WJTV, “Waiting is terrible. Emmitt’s family and ours, we’re standing on each other, leaning on each other. The waiting is, the waiting is worse than anything you could imagine.”

Today, the families stay in touch. Tony says, “Me and his brother, Daryl, we talk at least one or twice a month.”

Patti wears Dee’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck. She never takes it off. To this day, Patti hasn’t watched any of the news coverage from the accident last year. But recently she found a turning point, in her garden, after her son came to visit and noted that there weren’t any flowers in her front yard.

“And he came up and started crying and said ‘Mama, it looks like there’s still a funeral going on’ and that upset me because I can’t help my kids if I can’t help me. So I went to Walmart and they had a bunch of flowers on clearance so I bought all of them and hung them in my front yard,” says Patti , laughing.

As the anniversary approaches, Patti will go on vacation to Tennessee with some of her family, “Getting through June 3rd is going to be hard.”

It’s the same at Michelle Newell’s home.

“She has her days where she just wants to talk about him,” Michelle says of Za’Riyah. “She still cries. She looks at her pictures and his obituary. She always talks about him. I never have to bring him up. She’ll never let him die down.”

Za’Riyah says if she could talk to her Daddy one more time, she’d tell him “I love you.”

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