The families of two Effingham County men hurt in the Imperial Sugar refinery explosion last week are optimistic about their recovery and were grateful for the support shown them and the other families this week.
Jennifer Purnell, wife of Justin Purnell, and Karen Seckinger, mother of Paul Seckinger, addressed reporters Tuesday morning at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctor’s Hospital in Augusta, where Purnell and Seckinger were airlifted following last Thursday night’s blast and ensuing fire.
“He’s very strong, so we know he’ll pull through,” Jennifer Purnell said of her husband.
Purnell and Seckinger worked together at the Port Wentworth refinery and fished and hunted together in their off hours.
“They were together when everything happened,” Jennifer said. “I asked Justin where Paul was.”
Purnell said her husband called her right after the explosion in one of the silos.
“He called me to tell me he was out,” she said. “I don’t see how he called. His hands were burned.”
Purnell and Seckinger were taken to Memorial Health University Medical Center first. Still Burn Center medical director Dr. Fred Mullins had flown to Memorial to oversee the initial treatment, then returned to Augusta to begin the process of extensive surgery for 20 burn victims.
Purnell said her husband has been burned over 60 percent of his body and he is in critical but stable condition. They expect his recovery to take about two months.
“It’s a long process,” she said.
The couple has a 2-year-old son who is being cared for while Jenny Purnell is in Augusta with her husband.
She said they can talk with Justin but he cannot talk to them.
“He can nod his head,” she said. “He can hear us.”
Both men have worked at the refinery for four years. Seckinger’s father has been an employee there for 34 years and his grandfather retired from there.
Charlie Seckinger, Paul’s father, went to the site immediately upon hearing the news of the explosion.
Karen Seckinger got a call from one of her son’s friends that Paul was seen getting into an ambulance and talking.
Paul suffered burns over 80 percent of his body, his mother said. Plus, he is asthmatic, “which has made it more difficult,” she said.
He’s already had two surgeries and the 34-year-old father of a 9-year-old daughter has had his reliance on a ventilator gradually reduced from 100 percent down to 50 percent.
“Every little step is wonderful,” Karen said. “He’s making progress.”
Seckinger’s family is able to see him four times a day, with the first three visits 30 minutes each and the final lasting an hour.
“We stand there and tell him he’s all right,” his mother said, “that he’s not paralyzed and that he’s not blind.”
Seckinger’s eyes are swollen shut and he is in a medically induced coma. He can respond by moving his feet.
“We know they’re hearing us,” Karen said.
Seckinger will remain in a coma for about another month, his mother said. Skin grafts and therapy will follow that.
“It’ll be a couple of months,” his mother said, “but everything is progressing like we want it to be.”
Doctors at the Still Burn Center have told the families the patients will experience good days and bad days as they recuperate.
“He had a bad day a couple of days ago and a good day today,” Karen Seckinger said of her son. “We hope for more good days than bad days.”
The family has decided not to let his daughter see her father — “That would be hard for her,” Karen Seckinger said — but she is making him a tape recording.
Both families said the support they and the other families have received from the company, churches and others has been overwhelming. Seckinger, a fourth grade teacher at Springfield Elementary, said her principal, Terri Johnson, came to the hospital Monday and told Seckinger “you’re here,” meaning she didn’t have to worry about coming back to work.
In the meantime, the families waiting at the burn center have had other worries eased. She even had an offer from someone to do her nails. Augusta area churches are paying their hotel bills. Seckinger also praised the Chatham County emergency management team, which hastily set up a checkpoint near the plant to distinguish family members from others and then drove families to the hospitals.
“We thank everyone for their support,” she said. “Imperial Sugar has been phenomenal. The hospital has been wonderful. We haven’t wanted for a thing. Augusta has been wonderful. We have not spent a dime out of our own pocket.”
Purnell said the company has given “massive” support and co-workers have been at their side in Augusta.
“I can’t thank everybody enough for what they have done,” she said.
Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said the company’s main concern is the health of the injured employees. He also praised the work of the emergency crews, how quickly they responded and how well they have worked together.
“You’re never prepared for something like this,” he said. “It’s been overwhelming, the care and concern that have come here.”
The Seckingers, Purnells and other families continue to wait for what will be weeks and months of sometimes painful treatment and recovery. Seventeen patients remain at the Still Burn Center and 15 are in critical condition. Two are listed as serious.
“For some reason, God let our boys out,” Karen Seckinger said. “We have faith they are going to recover.”