DICKSON, Tenn. - Loved ones are comforted by news of James Bruce Mitchell's heroism to spare the lives of coworkers, even over his own, but they aren't really that surprised.
"He's a hero in several ways," said Janet Downs, wife of the pastor whose church Mitchell and his family had been attending since last fall.
Downs was clutching the hand of Debbie Mitchell, Bruce Mitchell's wife of 37 years, who preferred to not speak to NewsChannel 5, on-camera anyway, and allow Downs to do it.
"Mr. Bruce was a great guy," the preacher's wife said. "He loved everyone, it didn't matter what your age or your background. He was gonna be there and he was a hugger. He loved to hug people and he smiled continually."
Tennessee's branch of the federally run OSHA, also called TOSHA, is looking into the deadly explosion inside the Dickson QuadGraphics plant, on Old Columbia Road, last Friday afternoon. QuadGraphics is a printing company that turns out well known publications like USA Today, some other magazines and the supplements you'll find in the Sunday newspaper, for example.
According to an incident report filed by the Dickson City Fire Department, the primary responders last Friday, Mitchell, 60, was driving a forklift through the plant's interior, when the vehicle came in contact with a small, roughly one-inch pipe causing the pipe to spew "toluene," a dangerous and highly flammable chemical said to be used at QuadGraphics to clean, or to dilute the power of full-strength press ink.
The fire department's report said the impact of the forklift also damaged the ground level emergency shutoff valve, forcing Mitchell to run upstairs and cut off a second story shutoff valve. In the process, Mitchell, according to responding firefighters, became doused with that chemical toluene. The fire report says Mitchell then returned to the main floor, hopped in his forklift, and began an emergency trek across the floor for a decontaminating shower; problem is, something caused an ignition of the chemical in Mitchell's clothing and a subsequent explosion on the forklift, with Mitchell still behind the wheel.
Family members told NewsChannel 5 Mitchell died almost immediately inside the plant; firefighters have him being pronounced officially dead later at a Dickson hospital.
"He was awake on the scene, and was answering some of their questions," said Mike Goodman, public information officer and training officer for the Dickson Fire Department. "Not verbally, but he would nod his head."
Goodman said the entire department is giving Mitchell, a 20-year employee with QuadGraphics, a public commendation, even after his death, for putting the safety of others before his own. Goodman also gave praise to what's called the "E-Team," a group of basically-trained plant employees who serve as first responders, internally, in the event of an emergency.
Local plant managers did not return our phone calls, but simply deferred to company spokesperson Claire Ho, at corporate headquarters in Sussex, Wisconsin. Ho did not return NewsChannel 5's phone calls Wednesday afternoon, nor did she return phone calls the evening of the deadly explosion.
Bruce Mitchell was a native of Savannah, TN, a father of two girls, and a grandfather. Nicknamed "Pop" by loved ones, Mitchell started with QuadGraphics 20 years ago, the company was under a different name then, as a "stacker." His widow, Debbie, said he was just recently promoted to the bailing room where operating a forklift was a crucial part of his job.
Ms. Mitchell says her husband was licensed to operate a forklift, and that he had never expressed in concerns over working around the apparently dangerous chemical "toluene."
Visitation for Mitchell will be Thursday and Friday, from 2:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. The funeral will be held at 11:00 a.m. Saturday. The family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Diverse Community Church in Dickson.