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A long road back
Surgeries, rehab remain a part of burn victims lives
02.10 legacy park 1
Family members of the 14 workers killed as a result of the Imperial Sugar refinery blast walk through Legacy Park and among the markers erected to the memory of those lost. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Until the night of Feb. 7, 2008, Paul Seckinger’s full-time job was at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth.

Now, he spends five days a week in rehabilitation, recuperating from extensive burns suffered when the refinery erupted in flames a year ago.

Seckinger, Justin Purnell and Troy Bacon were some of the 20 who were hurt and eventually transferred to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Augusta’s Doctors Hospital. They spent weeks and months recovering from their injuries — and the struggle still isn’t over.

“I have a couple of more surgeries (ahead),” said Bacon. “I hope everything turns out to be great.”

Purnell already has several surgeries behind him — “too many to count,” he said. And there are more in his future.

“I’ve got four more surgeries, starting in March,” he said.

While Purnell’s wife Jenny and their son Hunter waited for Justin to recover from the burns that affected 60 percent of his body. He went through extensive rehab at the Still Burn Center and even pushed his buddy Seckinger once he was released to the rehab unit.

“It helps out a lot,” Seckinger said. “Having a fan club really helps.”

Purnell is continuing his rehab work three times a week at Memorial Health University Center in Savannah. Seckinger goes five times a week, but he looks forward to it.

“But it helps me get out the house and do something,” he said. “I’m taking it one day at a time.”

Seckinger hasn’t thought about what the future holds and if he might go back to work at some point. “I was laid up for six months,” he said. “Your muscle mass depletes.”

And rehab is hard work, as those who survived the blast and inferno learn to stretch their new skin and learn to work their muscles again.

“It had its ups and downs,” Bacon said. “But overall, it was great. Some days, not. But it seems like it’s coming along pretty well.”

Imperial Sugar dedicated Legacy Park, a memorial to the 14 people who perished as a result of the explosion and fire, on Saturday. Kelly Fields of Rincon was one of the 14 who died, succumbing to his injuries a week after the blast. In all, five people died in the hospital.

Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor — who was on his way to a conference room the night of the blast where two men were killed seconds later — said the outpouring of help and support from the community in the aftermath of the explosion has been nothing short of a miracle.

“The seeds of brotherly love sown into this area will bear fruit for years to come,” he said.

The refinery, which dates back more than 90 years, is being rebuilt. Much of it, including towering silos, was destroyed in the blast. A buildup of combustible sugar dust is believed to be the cause of the explosions. The new silos are expected to be finished in several months.

“We’ve endured hardships, hard labor and tragedy,” Sheptor told the crowd of several hundred at Legacy Park. “We are innovating and we are creating. We are building and we are changing. We are rebuilding for the future, with God’s help. We will forge ahead.”

Purnell and Seckinger have returned to their pastimes of hunting and fishing since their release from the hospital. Being able to do that has brought back a semblance of normalcy, according to Paul’s mother Karen Seckinger.

“That meant a lot, mentally,” she said. “You adjust and make a new normal. We’re just so thankful everything’s worked out and Paul’s home. He’s improved every day. He looks great. His attitude’s been great.”

As he began the slow process of healing in Augusta, Seckinger thought about getting back home to his daughter Morgan, an Ebenezer Elementary School student. Her Morgan’s Dixie Wish fundraising campaign attracted attention across the country, but her father didn’t find out about it until it was well under way.

“I’m really blessed,” he said of his daughter. “Words can’t explain it. It means a lot to be able to be back home and be with her. That was my main goal.”

Said Morgan: “It’s been very exciting to have my daddy home.”

When it comes to returning to Imperial Sugar, even if just for a visit, Seckinger said he doesn’t have a big desire to do so — though he wouldn’t mind seeing some of his former co-workers again.

“It’s not that I don’t want to. I really don’t have a reason to go back out there,” he said. “I’d like to go back out there and see the people once it gets built and everything, see how much it’s improved and see a lot of the guys I haven’t seen since the accident.”

As the company faces a long road ahead, so do those who survived the refinery erupting in flames and continue to put themselves and their lives back together.

“Still got a ways to go,” said Bacon, “but I think we’re gonna make it.”