Damage control

A deadly accident in a pit at Texas Instruments sent lawyers and flacks scurrying, but the company's response may put it deeper in the hole

For a moment before dawn last January 18, Heath Green toyed with the idea of playing hooky from work.

Green, a 25-year-old pipefitter apprentice, considered not showing up at his job installing pipe for a subcontractor hired to help Texas Instruments, Inc. expand its semiconductor manufacturing facilities in North Dallas. Green had purchased a 1991 Ford half-ton truck just the day before, his wife, Barbara Jean Martin, recalls. He wanted to hop in for a joyride with Martin, whom he'd just wed two months earlier.

"Let's just take this truck and go down to the [Fort Worth] stock show," Martin recalls Green saying shortly after rousing from bed.

But Green, a strapping six-foot-one native Texan and a garrulous sort, was torn. He also wanted to show off his new wheels to his work buddies, who'd teased him mercilessly the week before. His colleagues had complained that Green, a youngster in the crowd, had talked incessantly about the prospective purchase and its tricky financing arrangements. He'd never really buy the truck, the co-workers had figured.

So Heath Green drove to work. It was a fateful decision.
Less then an hour after he arrived at the Texas Instruments site, Green climbed down unknowingly into his deathbed.

At about 8 that morning, Green lowered himself into a 12-foot-deep, 6-foot-wide pit to begin welding pipes. The pipes carried argon gas--an odorless, tasteless, colorless, but potentially deadly substance used to grow the silicon crystals needed for manufacturing semiconductor chips, the product on which Texas Instruments had built most of its $9.9 billion-a-year enterprise. Green was working at a construction site near Floyd Road, on the campus of TI's enormous headquarters east of the intersection between LBJ and Central Expressway.

What Green didn't know is that argon had already leaked into the small pit, displacing much of the oxygen. And within seconds of descending into the pit to replace temporary pipes with permanent fixtures, Green had passed out. Doctors would later discover that the argon had collapsed his lungs.

Ten minutes later--unaware of what had felled Green and that he was probably already dead--co-worker Tony Gleason, a 36-year-old journeyman pipefitter, jumped into the hole to rescue the apprentice. Gleason fell unconscious too.

After peering into the pit and seeing the two men lying unconscious at the bottom, other co-workers frantically summoned the Texas Instruments medical emergency unit. Within minutes, the company rescue team as well as the Dallas Fire Department were rushing to the site to save the men.

But these weren't the only units dispatched to the scene. With similar speed and alarm, a team of executives, a lawyer, and even a public relations officer--Texas Instruments' damage control unit--was sent zooming to the site. Its goal wasn't to rescue the workers, but to rescue the company--from potential lawsuits.

From the outset, TI executives must have assumed that the tragic incident would generate bad publicity, liability claims, and expensive litigation. Although the pipefitters weren't directly employed by TI, the company would most certainly possess the deepest pockets in any lawsuit. And as the property owner, TI at least had some potential liabilities.

No stranger to litigation, Texas Instruments was prepared for unpleasant situations such as this. The company maintains one of the most sophisticated, highly compensated legal departments in the nation. Its general counsel, Richard Agnich, earns $964,000 a year in salary and stock options. Bucking the electronics industry's decades-old tradition of relying on gentlemen's agreements for licensing fees, the company's legal department has managed to turn itself into a profit-maker. In four years alone, the department collected more than $1 billion from patents--according to annual reports--by initiating a series of lucrative patent infringement lawsuits against practically every major computer-maker in the industry. At any given moment, TI has dozens of law firms in courtrooms around the world hammering away at its cases.

So at the same time specially equipped emergency workers slithered on harnesses into the eerily still pit, pulling up the lifeless men one after the other, Texas Instruments public relations specialist Gail Chandler was standing just a few yards away yakking to reporters from WFAA-Channel 8. A company lawyer hovered nearby.

Gleason was the first to be pulled from the pit at around 8:30 a.m. He wasn't breathing and had no pulse, according to the account of a TI nurse who was at the scene. His pupils were already dilated. The nurse immediately began to resuscitate him. Some six minutes later, when Dallas paramedics detected a pulse, they loaded Gleason into an ambulance and careened off with sirens blaring to Medical City hospital.

At the hospital, however, Gleason never regained consciousness. Today, having suffered severe brain damage, he remains under round-the-clock medical care in what is described as a "vegetative state."

A gaunt figure, Gleason lies in bed with oxygen-supplying tubes strapped to his nostrils. His eyes are usually shut, and his mouth typically hangs open. His hands and feet are bound to a physical therapy apparatus designed to keep his limbs stretched. He's unable to talk, move, or feed himself. He does, however, cry out in pain when physical therapists flex his limbs and body. It is the only sign of life his family sees, according to his wife's lawyer.

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ryanpinson
ryanpinson

Heath and I grew up together in Lancaster and lived just a couple of streets apart. I was saddened to hear of Heath's passing on the radio one day driving to work. He was a good friend always in a good mood and fun to be around. I began working at TI later in life and volunteered to be on a department safety team in his honor. When asked why I was interested in the safety team I would relate Heath's story. I did it in his honor. Many of the veterans I worked with new the story and understood why I was motivated to be a part of safety at TI. I like to think that the time I spent working at TI made a difference when it came to ensuring the safety of my coworkers. To this day at any job I work, when I hear the word safety, I remember Heath and do my best to make sure my coworkers understand to never take safety for granted. RIP Heath, you are not forgotten and our frienship is being passed on your honor. Ryan Pinson

 
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