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Authorities rule Milburn death an accident

November 14, 1997

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ The death of Rodney Milburn, a U.S. gold medal winner in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1972 Olympics, was ruled an accident Thursday.

Milburn, 47, was found dead Tuesday in a rail car full of a hot chemical solution at the paper plant where he worked. It happened at the Georgia Pacific plant near Baton Rouge.

``At this time, his death is being ruled as an accident,″ said Lt. Sonny Jarreau of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Department. ``Unless new information comes forward, the investigation is over.″

Preliminary autopsy results showed that Milburn had severe burns over his entire body, and that will likely be listed as the cause of death, said Chuck Smith of the parish coroner’s office.

The autopsy showed no signs that Milburn had a heart attack or a stroke, which might have caused him to fall into the rail car, Smith said.

``It doesn’t look like there was any medical condition that caused him to fall,″ he said. ``We may never know exactly what caused him to fall in. It looks like a tragic accident.″

Milburn had been assigned to unload a rail car containing liquid sodium chlorate, a chemical used in the bleaching process of paper making. He was found at the bottom of the rail car by a supervisor who went looking for him when he failed to answer a page.

Georgia Pacific authorities said they are trying to figure out how Milburn ended up in the rail car.

The rail car was divided into four compartments, each containing crystallized sodium chlorate. Each compartment has a hole on top of the rail car about two-and-a-half feet wide.

To get the crystal into liquid form, water at a temperature of 180 degrees is pumped into each compartment by pipes attached to the rail car. Another, larger pipe moves the liquid substance into a holding tank.

There are railings around the top of the rail car for workers to hold on to, but no railings around the four holes. The holes are usually closed unless workers open them to check water levels or to make sure the crystal is dissolving properly, said Patty Prats-Swanson, a Georgia Pacific spokeswoman.

Two holes were open on the rail car Milburn was unloading. One was above a compartment that was empty and the other above a compartment that was being unloaded _ the compartment where Milburn was found, Prats-Swanson said.

Mixing crystal sodium with water does not produce fumes, so Milburn could not have been overcome, she said. She said workers are not required to wear breathing masks, and that the liquid substance is not toxic to the skin. She said the coroner’s office indicated the burns that killed Milburn were caused by the hot water that was pumped into the rail car.

Prats-Swanson said Milburn had worked in the bleaching section for the nine years he was employed by Georgia Pacific and had been through extensive training.

``He was an excellent worker,″ she said. ``We, more than anybody else, want to know what happened.″

Milburn was a native of Opelousas and a track star for Southern University in Baton Rouge.

He won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in 13.24 seconds, a record that was not broken for five years.

The year before the Munich Olympics, Milburn won the 1971 Pan-American Games title and was undefeated in 28 straight races.

After 1972, Milburn turned to professional track but resumed his amateur competition in 1980 and was ranked fifth in the word. He remained world ranked until his retirement in 1983.

Pete Cava, spokesman for USA Track & Field, said Milburn was ``inordinately famous″ in his time.

``We described his season in 1971 as `Ruthian,‴ Cava said, referring to comparisons to baseball legend Babe Ruth. ``Before he even made the U.S. Olympic team, everyone was saying that he would be an Olympic gold medalist.″

Milburn is survived by his mother Mary Milburn of Opelousas, his wife, Betty Comeaux Milburn, and three children _ Rodney, Felacia and Russel.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

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