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‘Pressure event,’ not explosion, caused fatal incident at West Haven VA Medical Center

ATF agents arrive at the scene of an explosion at the West Haven VA on Nov. 13, 2020.

MARK MIRKO, THE HARTFORD COURANT/TNS

By ZACH MURDOCK | The Hartford Courant | Published: November 20, 2020

The U.S. Navy veteran and contractor killed at the West Haven VA Medical Center last week fell victim to a “pressure event” inside the steam system they were working on, according to a new investigative report released Thursday.

That event caused superheated water vapor to fill the building that Euel T. Sims, Jr., a VA employee and veteran, and contractor Joseph O’Donnell were working in before they could escape, killing both and injuring three others who attempted to enter the building afterward.

The incident was not a traditional explosion, as it was originally reported to authorities and the public, and there was no fire involved, according to a brief report by the state police Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit.

Officials had indicated the incident was a tragic accident and investigators concurred there was no apparent criminal aspect, the report released Thursday afternoon concluded.

The specialized state police unit was assigned to be the lead investigating agency in the minutes after the incident rocked the VA campus just after 8 a.m. Nov. 13 as local, state and federal authorities swarmed the area.

Sims, 60, and O’Donnell, 36, had been performing regularly scheduled repairs on a steam pipe in the decades-old system housed in a building on the western edge of the sprawling campus near Interstate 95 when the “pressure event” occurred. Three other VA employees suffered minor injuries trying to enter the building after the incident and were treated at the hospital there, officials have said.

State police and investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives set about determining the cause of the explosion and outlined their findings in the report issued Thursday. The U.S. Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration will continue investigating with the help of local authorities, state police added.

The incident immediately led to calls for upgrades to the 44-acre, 39-building VA campus that was originally built in the 1940s and 1950s. U.S. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie traveled West Haven on Tuesday to tour the site of the incident and the rest of the campus, pledging millions of dollars for upgrades and improvements there.

Sims and O’Donnell were both remembered as hard-working, reliable men who were both skilled workers.

Sims served more than 20 years with the Seabees, the Naval construction battalion, and spent his later years in Connecticut working for the VA after he retired from active duty. O’Donnell grew up in Danbury and turned his natural mechanical skills into a career as a union steamfitter, impressing his colleagues, families and friends with his confidence and charisma, according to his obituary.

Both men are survived by their wives. Sims also is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.

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