Co Londonderry survivor warns of the deadly speed of slurry fumes

Pacemaker Press Belfast 10-01-2019:  George Haslett pictured at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, Northern Ireland.'Picture By: Arthur Allison Pacemaker.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 10-01-2019: George Haslett pictured at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, Northern Ireland.'Picture By: Arthur Allison Pacemaker.

A Co Londonderry man who made a miraculous recovery after being overcome by slurry fumes, says he hopes his story will warn other farmers of the speed in which this dangerous toxin can kill.

It is just over a year since 45-year-old George Haslett was overcome by slurry fumes on Saturday, 16th June at his Claudy farm and since then he has been on a long journey of recovery.

Over recent years, incidents involving slurry have claimed several lives in Northern Ireland. Many serious incidents have also taken place; the result of farmers being overcome by gas released from slurry during mixing. Hundreds of animals have been killed in similar circumstances.

On the morning of his near fatal accident George and young Timothy Lynch had gone to Donemana livestock market with his first crop of fat lambs of the season.

George takes up the story: “On the way home we debated on going to clip sheep to a neighbour or spread slurry for my second cut silage. It was a good spell of weather so we choose to go to the slurry.

“We got the slurry pump hooked on and into the tank. I was more worried about the tank being opened and Timothy falling in so told him to stay out of the shed before l started the pump.

“The slurry was watery; I had mixed chicken litter in it only four weeks previously so l was just thinking about giving it a quick mix and getting it out.

“After starting the pump I thought about getting four pet lambs I was fattening out of the shed. They were near the door.

“I remember starting to untie the gates when I felt the fumes having an affect on my breathing. I was soon gasping for breath so I ran out and collapsed outside. That is the last thing l remember from that day. I don’t even remember hearing anything either. So the next chain of events have been told to me since,” added George.

“Timothy ran immediately to the farmhouse for help which is approximately 200 metres from the shed. Fortunately my parents were there; that in itself was a miracle. Mum rang neighbours and the emergency services, while my father went to help me.

“In the meantime I had subconsciously got up and went back into the shed I supposed trying to get the lambs out. I will never know why I tried to do that. But when he got to me I wasn’t far from the entrance, they said with a dead lamb between my legs.

“He got me out and without training he did CPR on me the best he could. So he breathed into my mouth and the fumes in me went into his lungs and he was overcome by them too.

“By this time our neighbours were there and the ambulance was there shortly after that followed by the Fire Brigade and Air Ambulance. I had arrested and the ambulance crew got me breathing again but I was still poor. The doctor was vital that day in the Air Ambulance. She travelled to the hospital with me in the road ambulance so if I arrested again she could still work to keep me alive. I was admitted into ICU in Altnagelvin,” added George.

The Co Londonderry man said the first thing he remembers when he woke on Monday afternoon was a nurse at his bedside and the sound of machines and monitors beeping around him.

He added: “I soon found out that I couldn’t speak, but I still had reasonable physical power in my body. I remember not sleeping that night and the nurse getting me up out of bed early next morning and I was able to eat cornflakes and watch breakfast television news.

“I distinctly remember seeing the best weather forecast I have ever seen and all I could think of was getting grass cut for hay. But I couldn’t tell anybody and I had developed a slight tremor but it was bad enough that I couldn’t write either to tell anybody.

“I remember when Ashley, my wife, came in I got her phone and rang my friend to go and cut it. I couldn’t speak and she took the phone from me and told him ‘l don’t know what this man wants’. All I could do was point to letters in the alphabet to spell words which was a very frustrating way to communicate.

“That afternoon they moved me out of HDU to a bay on the ward next to my dad. I couldn’t talk to him but he handed me a newspaper with the story of the accident. After a day and a half on the ward, I remember the tremor getting worse and starting uncontrollably and I drifted into an unconscious state for a second time.

“This was to last a further 17 days. The doctors called it a secondary reaction but said after they don’t know what caused it.”

George said that during that time the doctors had little hope for his survival after an MRI scan showed poor brain activity.

“When I woke this time I still couldn’t speak and the tremor was so bad I couldn’t feed myself and do anything for myself. I remember physiotherapists coming to assess me physically by asking me to push back on them with my legs and arms as they held against me.

“That was the first I knew how weak I was. I couldn’t even sit up. The only way I could describe this was like being a baby again. I remember being very hungry this time. It took a few weeks for me to start feeding myself again. That was the the start of my rehabilitation.”

In total George spent nine months in hospital care.

“I can now walk with a walking aid. The brain injury I have sustained is affecting signals sent from it to parts of my body being slowed down and my balance is badly affected hence the walking aid. My speech is better, just far slower than it was before. I thank God for what I have. My memories, knowledge and awareness are all so good. It is a complete miracle the gains and improvements that my body is still making.

“This experience has strengthened my faith and I have become a far more patient and content person (most of the time). The many prayers said for me by friends and family have been answered,” said George.

The family held a very successful tractor run in his name on the anniversary of the accident in aid of Air Ambulance NI.

Added George: “I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped me plan it and supported me through giving to it. It was an unbelievable day. I will never forget the way our community came together for it.

“I hope my story will be remembered by everyone that knows me and reads this every time they are working with slurry. I made a big mistake of under-estimating the job with my slurry being watery and easy mixed.

“ I fell into the trap that this was going to be easy and straight forward - even quick job. Slurry fumes should have been treated as a big threat. I know that now but this was far from my mind to be honest. The fumes were present almost immediately after the mixer was started. I know how close I was to death - I believe nobody will ever be as close as I was.

“There have been people that haven’t survived as I did but I do hope and pray that nobody else has to go through what I went through - or worse get killed by this deadly stuff.

“If I could go back and do that day different I would have clipped sheep, waited for a day with a breeze, then got the livestock out before I started, left the shed and mixer for at least 30 minutes after starting the mixer and had the tractor at lower revs at that initial time too.

“Recently I was talking to my vet who was asked to come that day to put down two dying lambs that weren’t going to survive. He told me there was a lot of dead birds in the shed at the time he was there. This was another sign of how quickly the fumes got them before they could fly out of the shed,” added George.

This is the second serious encounter which George experienced with the same tank, which he fell into 38 years ago.

George explained: “It was 12ft deep with 10ft of cattle slurry in it this time. My father had left off slats for a neighbour to come and put out the slurry. He and the work men were all away running up potato drills with drill ploughs on other conacre land.

“It was the first day of the school holidays. Myself and two brothers went out exploring around the farm yard. I was a few days away from my 6th birthday on the 3rd of July. My brother David was six soon to turn seven and Alistair was a year younger than me. The tank is just longer than the shed and that is where it was open. We got to that point and looked in. The slurry hadn’t been mixed and there was a dry crust on it and it looked like a floor to us. It was down 2ft below the slats.

“Guess what? We thought it would be a good hiding place. I was the bravest so I said I would go first. So l jumped in. Thankfully David did the same as Timothy and went for help straight away. My mother had a young secondary school girl Sharon Brown giving her help with house work. She was working that day and as David ran he was shouting for help. Fortunately Sharon was putting out washing on the line. She heard David shouting and before she saw him she was running towards him.

“By the time she got to me all she could see was my eyes and nose she said ‘give me your hand’ and I was able to raise my arm and put up my hand. By that time my mum was there to give her help to get me out.

“You can imagine the commotion. Thankfully the slurry was thick and it held me that bit longer, but I was close that time too. They hosed me down and took me straight to hospital. I hadn’t swallowed any and there was nothing in my lungs.

“The similarity to these two stories is that I needed someone to raise the alarm. If David or Timothy would’ve tried to save me by staying I would have most definitely be dead now and maybe them too by trying. The miracle is that they went and others were there to come quickly. If David would have had to run to the house I would have been down below before Sharon would have got there and I would have been lost.

“God has keep me alive for a reason. It is a miracle to survive once. There are no words to describe surviving two near death incidents in the same place twice,” added George.