Special Report: Danger in the Bakken Part 2

KTVQ-Billings Jan 31, 2014 9:37 PM by Victoria Fregoso - Q2 News

BILLINGS - The areas of eastern Montana and western North Dakota draw in thousands of young men looking for work in the oil fields. But that wasn't the case for Gary Roberts.

Living in Sidney, Montana and working at a convenience store, Roberts, 32, was content with life.

"Guys that came into work, when I was working at a convenience store, at nights, and they'd tell me how much I could make, and so I signed on," Roberts said.

It was a decision that would change his life.

November 19, 2010 is a day Roberts will never forget.

"Everything seemed like another day," he said. "Go out to the job site and everything was going fine like it normally does."

Roberts was told to clean casing pipe with a solvent. Unknown to him, the solvent was flammable. A coworker nearby was using a propane torch to heat the pipe.

"Out of nowhere I was on fire and I was engulfed and it was pretty quick," Roberts recalled.

Roberts was on fire for several minutes.

"Kind of just so adrenaline rush. I didn't really think about it too much but trying to get the fire out."

With no working fire extinguishers nearby, his coworkers rolled him in the snow and mud.

Roberts' body was engulfed in flames until an employee working for a different company raced to the scene and used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.

Roberts suffered severe burns to his face, neck, vocal cords, chest, hands and legs.

"First thing I remember is his face, it was pitch black. Completely, completely pitch black," said Paramedic Tyler Welk. "Walked up to him to check, see if he had a pulse because I thought he was dead."

With the drilling site near Mandree North Dakota, EMT's raced to get Roberts to the parking lot of the Four Bears Casino in New Town.

With a 20-minute drive ahead of them, the EMT's knew every second would count.

"I just remember cranking that heat up, as high as it could go," Welk said. "Trying to get his clothes off to see how bad the burns were."

Roberts was taken by a medical helicopter from the casino parking lot in New Town to a hospital in Williston.

It wasn't until lawsuit paperwork began filing in that these EMT's learned Roberts was still alive.

"I've thought about him almost every day," said EMT Lisa Valandra. "I think about him a lot. Wanted to know if he survived or how he was doing."

And it wasn't until a reunion in Bismarck that Roberts was able to thank the people who saved his life.

"I'm glad you kept me alive through her crazy driving," Roberts joked. "Sounds like she's ready for NASCAR!"

Court documents show Roberts was employed by G&C Industries and the job site was to be supervised by EOG Resources.

In October of 2013, Roberts received a multi-million-dollar, eight figure settlement for his injuries.

"We accomplished, over a period of months, probably the most significant settlement ever in the history of Montana for a single incident," said Cliff Edwards, Roberts' attorney.

Cliff Edwards learned about Roberts' incident a year after it happened.

Through two years of perpetration for trial, it was determined Roberts wasn't properly trained or given the correct safety equipment.

"He's doused, he's sopped," Edwards said. "He's like a wick because there's a kid right beside him with a weed burner. With a big flame coming out of it. And that's what caught him on fire."

Today, Roberts lives with his fiancée and two daughters in Billings.

Since the accident, Roberts has undergone multiple surgeries at the Regions Hospital Burn Center in St. Paul Minnesota.

So far, the cost of his medical bills has reached into the millions.

"There are some ideas for surgeries in the future that can help with my breathing and maybe get rid of the trachea," Roberts said.

He will never be able to work again, and his hands are permanently disfigured.

Despite receiving the multi-million dollar settlement, Roberts isn't sure if it will ever make up for what he's gone through.

"Yea, I believe it was preventable," Roberts said. "If the rules got followed and things were done a little safer, it never would have happened."

Through it all, Roberts has kept a positive attitude and looks forward to watching his daughters grow up.

"He could of easily just turned sour," Edwards said. "Or he could accept he can't do anything about it but make the best of it and he has made the best of it."

Roberts still thinks the oil field is an opportunity to make a suitable income.

"I just think some better safety enforcement would do a lot, make sure everyone gets home to their wife or their daughters or their son, whoever it is," he said.


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