Three Moab men have died after they were electrocuted at the Intrepid Potash facility southwest of Moab when the industrial equipment they were operating touched a power line, said the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.
Russell Helquist and Matthew Johnston were pronounced dead at the accident site on Saturday, Nov. 10. A third victim, Arthur “Buddy” Secrest, was found unconscious but breathing. He was flown to the University of Utah Hospital Burn Center in critical condition, but his family announced his death on Tuesday, Nov. 13, due to his significant injuries.
Grand County first responders were initially dispatched to a report of an explosion at the Intrepid Potash plant at approximately 12:15 p.m.
An officer with the Moab City Police Department was first to arrive at the scene, followed by members of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, Grand County EMS and Moab Valley Fire Department.
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said the men were working to extract a pump from one of the pond pits. Upon raising the pump in the air with a telescoping forklift, they contacted a power line.
The potash mine was opened in 1963 by Texas Gulf Sulphur Company. The primary operations were changed from underground mining to above-ground solution mining and solar evaporation after 1970. Operations at the Intrepid Potash – Moab, LLC, facility pump potash solutions from the underground mine area to the ponds.
Andy Smith, Grand County EMS director, said emergency crews navigated their way past the plant at the entrance where the potash is processed and ready to ship. The crews relied on their previous visits to the facility, either from some who had formally been employed there, or from plant tours, to find their way past the underground mines along “twisty, curving roads” to the very last pond, “as far on the property as you could get,” Smith said.
Smith said the extent of the men’s injuries and details surrounding the accident were not known as crews arrived. He said that as soon as they knew there were serious injuries, medical helicopters were put on standby and instructed to start prepping.
When a supervisor and an ambulance arrived, “it was still a very active scene,” Smith said.
There was an active fire and other hazards as the emergency crews entered the area.
“They were trying to be very cautious,” Smith said. “The potash first responders did a great job. They had an initial safety guy there who did a fantastic job offering treatment and he continued to assist us as we got (Secrest) ready for transportation in a helicopter.”
Officials said the incident is still under investigation.
Kevin Ryan, from Intrepid’s headquarters in Denver, was at the Moab facility on Tuesday, Nov. 13, and said he expected the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be arriving that same day to conduct an investigation. OSHA routinely investigates workplace related injuries and deaths. It’s an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, and was formed through federal legislation with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHAct).
Rick York, general manager of the Intrepid Potash Utah Division, said in a press release on Nov. 13, “At present, it would be premature and inappropriate for us to speculate on the cause of the accident. There is an active investigation underway by the appropriate authorities.”
York said some operations have resumed at the facility in areas not subject to the investigation. He said updates will be released as they become available.
CONDOLENCES, SUPPORT OFFERED TO VICTIMS AND THEIR FAMILIES
York said the accident is tragic and gave condolences to the family and friends of the victims.
“The outpouring of community support for Russell, Matt and Buddy and their families, as well as all our Moab employees during this incredibly difficult time has been tremendous,” York said.
Community members across the region have offered condolences, prayers and support to the families and friends of the victims. Upon hearing the news, more than 100 comments were shared on the Moab Sun News’ Facebook post. Comments, like the ones from Moab residents Dewayne Gwinn, who wrote, “Prayers for the families. Unbelievable loss to the community and their family,” and Helen Knight, who said, “Prayers and love for the family. God bless you all during this time. Amen,” number in the dozens.
Smith said the accident “hit so close to home.”
“I knew Russell pretty well and had worked with him in a few capacities,” Smith said. “He was always willing to help you out. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. He was kind and easygoing. His whole family is that way.”
“The incident has greatly impacted the responding public safety workers,” said Jim Winder, Moab City Police Chief. He added that one of the responding deputy sheriffs from San Juan County had grown up with, and was good friends with, one of the victims.
A celebration of life will be held on Monday, Nov. 19, for Johnston at the LDS Stake Center on Locust Lane. All are welcome to attend and celebrate Johnston’s life.
A viewing for Helquist will be held on Friday, Nov. 16, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 701 Locust Lane in Moab.
Funeral services for Secrest are pending.
Financial donation accounts have been created to help support the families of the victims.
For the Johnston family, an account has been established at Mountain America Credit Union called the “Taylor Johnston Donation Fund.” Checks may be made out to Taylor Johnston. An online account has been created at GoFundMe.com (web link: https://tinyurl.com/y9dydno8).
For the Helquist family, an account has been created at the Desert Rivers Credit Union (formerly known as the Grand County Credit Union). A credit union spokesperson said donations should be directed to the “Russell Helquist Memorial Fund.”
Editor's note: This article was updated on Nov. 15 with new information.