Worker killed in Rockmart mill explosion dreamed of starting a family

Local, state and federal authorities are investigating a Polk County mill explosion that killed one worker and injured five others early Sunday morning. (Credit: Channel 2 Action News)
Local, state and federal authorities are investigating a Polk County mill explosion that killed one worker and injured five others early Sunday morning. (Credit: Channel 2 Action News)

The man who died in a Rockmart feed mill blast early Sunday worked the third shift because he dreamed of starting a family with his new wife, relatives said.

The better pay allowed Justin Deems, 25, to settle into a rented house with Ashley Deems, whom he married last year. They pictured themselves with a couple of kids, his mother Rita Deems said. Maybe they’d buy a house of their own.

“She loved him and he loved her,” Rita said. “They were happy.”

Then she felt her house shake at 2:30 a.m., as she sat with her granddaughter, watching TV. As she rushed to JCG Foods feed mill about a half-mile down the road, all Rita could see was smoke and flames.

“We were trying to figure out if he survived or was dead,” the granddaughter Ansley Bright, 7, said. “He told me I was his favorite.”

Five others were injured in the explosion off Ga. 101 about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. One survivor was airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital, said Rockmart Fire and Emergency Services Chief Todd Queen. The rest were taken to hospitals in the Rome and Marietta area.

The explosion caused the partial collapse of a low-rise building next to the plant’s 100-foot tall storage and processing facility, Queen said. The fire is extinguished, but Ga. 101 remained closed into the evening as engineers assessed the structural damage.

Eight people were working at the mill, which processes chicken feed for farms in the region, Queen said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been called in to investigate because they have expertise in large commercial structures, said Special Agent Will Creech. Local and state fire investigators will assist them, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been notified.

Firefighters uncovered a gas leak at the site of the explosion, but investigators do not know whether it caused the blast or resulted from it. All utilities at the site have been shut off.

“It’s still way to early in the process to say anything about the cause on this,” Queen said.

A much smaller dust explosion took place at the plant in recent years but in a different building, Queen said. An OSHA online inspections database lists two complaints in August 2013, but gives few details.

“It was nowhere near the magnitude of what was experienced today,” he said.

Sunday’s blast was so powerful it pushed Deems out of a second-story window, Rita said. Later, family members told her they could hear the explosion 10 miles away.

Sunday morning, shaken plant workers and their loved ones gathered at a nearby gas station to catch a glimpse of the plant and share news of the accident. Debbie Fuqua’s husband Kevin hauls chicken feed from the plant early each Sunday morning. He missed being at the scene of the explosion by just hours, she said.

“It breaks my heart. I just feel bad for all the families,” she said.

Deems had worked at the plant since May. A brother of the 2009 Rockmart High School graduate told him of an opening, and some of his cousins worked there.

“He was a hard worker,” Rita said. The man everyone called “Possum” even met his wife on the job as a bill collector for a rent-to-own furniture company. He was collecting money from Ashley’s parents when they met.

“Come down and see me,” Ashley would ask in Facebook messages, Rita recalled. “And he would.”

In addition to his wife, Deems is survived by brothers Jason, 24, and Travis, 23; sisters Ashley, 21, and Hope, 18, and 10 half brothers and sisters.