Family members were in tears Tuesday after spending all night at York County's Resolute Forest Products plant, waiting for answers after a workplace tragedy.
The mother of 39-year-old Samir Storey said she wanted to know what happened to her son, but was too distraught to speak on camera.
York County emergency officials said Storey and two other men were cleaning a large tank, called a scrubber, that filters waste chemicals.
The tank sits outside the plant along the Catawba River, and stands more than 50 feet tall. The men worked for a contractor called Tradesmen International.
The crews must remove plates from inside the tank and clean them. They are suspended in harnesses as the work is done. Somehow, an unknown chemical leaked into the tank with the workers. The other two were treated for minor injuries, but Storey died there at the scene.
"Two of them were able to get out, but they couldn't get the third worker out of the tank," said Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell.
Resolute Forest Products were once called Bowater, and are still largely known by that name. The company converts raw wood into paper for use in magazines and ad printing. About 600 people work there.
Resolute spokeswoman Debbie Johnston said the accident saddens everyone there.
"We're so sorry to see incidents like this happen. It's difficult, and it affects everybody, not just the families, but everyone that works in that mill, because they're reminded of what can happen so quickly," Johnston said.
The paper mill has endured several serious accidents and fatalities. Last May, four workers were severely burned by chemicals when a valve failed and a pipe burst. The toxic spray sent them to burn centers for treatment.
In 2000, two contract workers were killed while working on a pipe fitting at another outside tank, when the tank exploded.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration told Channel 9 its investigation this time will last six to eight weeks. The agency is trying to determine if any safety laws were violated.
OSHA found that there were no violations in the incident last May.
However, Resolute was fined after two serious violations and two minor ones were found during a detailed inspection last year. Those violations involved incomplete employee training, inadequate carbon monoxide detectors, and failure to test breathing equipment used by crews during emergencies.
Resolute said all three contractors involved in Tuesday's incident were trained on those specific tanks, and were all wearing the required safety gear.
Family members said Storey was the first one into the tank, and was closer to the bottom than the other two men when the accident happened.
Howell said emergency crews and firefighters often train at Resolute and also take yearly tours of the plant so they can stay familiar with the layout, and where specific problems could occur. As one of the county's largest employers, Howell said that training is critical for safety.
"There are a lot of caustics there, a lot of chemicals used in that process, a lot of piping, people and moving parts. There is potential danger," he said.
OSHA investigators are expected to be onsite for several days. The plant was not evacuated, and work continued there on Tuesday.