Oil refinery Sabakh Haj
The funeral for worker Sabakh Haj killed in an oil refinery leak leaving his parents’ home. Photo by Gili Eliyahu
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The committee members investigating the deaths Tuesday of three workers at the Oil Refineries in Haifa suspect negligence, since one of the workers had taken his mask off and the workers who came to help him were not wearing masks at all. The team is also looking into possible negligence on the part of the supervisor and the personnel who train workers for this type of work. The committee is made up of representatives of the ministries of environmental protection, industry, trade and labor, and the police.

The three workers killed, all from the town of Yafia near Nazareth, were Tammer Marjiyeh, 33, George Zaatara, 31, and Sabakh Haj, 20. The initial probe indicates that they were employed by a subcontractor carrying out general renovations at the refineries.

According to Shlomo Katz, the director of the Ministry of Environmental Protection's Haifa district, the gas leak occured in the torches that burn off toxic gases. These are used during the refining process to prevent the emission of gases except as carbon dioxide.

The investigators are trying to determine whether at some point one of the workers took off his mask, breathed in the toxic gas and fainted. Katz said the two other workers may have seen what had happened and went to help, but because they were not wearing masks, they also breathed in the fumes and lost consciousness.

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday that the area was "as dangerous as a nuclear bomb," and that if the area continued to be dangerous, he would order it shut down.

The chief of police of the Zevulun district, Commander Benny Avilia, said yesterday that the events were still unclear. He said the first man who collapsed was indeed found not wearing his mask, but there is no indication that he had been working without it, and it may have been removed by another worker who came to help him. Avilia also said that Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry investigators would be examining the actions of supervisors and how the workers were trained.

Dr. Yaron Bar-Lavie, the head of the Intensive Care Unit at Rambam Medical Center, said yesterday that another worker is still in serious condition but out of danger.

Bar-Lavie explained that hydrogen sulfide penetrates the cells and destroys the part of the cell that stores genetic material and produces chemical energy. He said a few breaths are enough to cause a person to lose consciousness and that the gas depresses the sense of smell so the victims do not even know they are breathing it.

Seven other people were slightly injured in the incident.

Tony Dahdal, 24, of Yafia, was one of the welders injured in the incident. Speaking to Haaretz from his home in Yafia shortly after being released from the hospital, Dahdal said he had been wearing a mask and had all the required equipment when he went up on the scaffolding to weld a pipe. "I smelled gas and a few seconds later I fainted. My friends took me and washed my face and then took me to rest a little. None of the supervisors who were there, including the safety officer, asked us to stop working or think for a minute about what had happened. [The safety officer] said there was some gas left in the pipe and it wasn't important. Fifteen minutes later my friend Tammer Marjiyeh went up on the scaffolding with his mask, and a few seconds later he collapsed and fell. Then George and Sabakh. It was horrible."

Tony Khoury, 20, who was under the scaffolding, said: "George was on the forklift and saw them fall, and he took a mask and ran to them and he fell, too. Only then did they start to realize there had been a disaster. None of the people in charge came near the place. They all ran away, afraid for their lives."

Khoury and Dahdal said that on the day of the accident, they had started working at 6 A.M. and continued until the late evening with two meal breaks. They said their supervisors were most concerned with finishing the work quickly.

George Shehada, a friend and relative of some of the workers who had himself worked as a welding contractor at sites defined as dangerous said the men that died were experienced welders. "Our concern is that someone is going to whitewash the investigation. After all, the guys who were killed were simple laborers and it will be chalked up to an unfortunate event. But we won't let that happen, not as a family and not as residents of Yafia."

Relatives said that after the mourning period is over, they would be seeking legal advice.

A spokesman for the Oil Refineries said the company had sent its condolences to the families, that the accident was in the early stages of investigation and that the company was cooperating fully with the investigation. The company also said the facility has been shut down for the past month for periodic maintenance, and at no time was the public in danger. There had been no explosion, it added.

But Ronit Piso, the director of a group active in health and environmental issues, the Public Health Coalition, said: "The stockpiles of dangerous materials are much beyond the requirements of local industry, and various committees have called for a reduction in the risks from these materials, but nothing as been done yet. Very toxic substances, such as bromine, come to the Haifa port for export when there are alternatives available that are less dangerous to public health," Piso said.