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Utah woman expected to survive poison tea episode

Published August 22, 2014 7:18 am

Crime • Prosecutors investigate restaurant where lye was mixed with sugar.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jan Harding's life no longer is threatened by burns caused by a cleaning chemical mixed into her iced tea.

But late at night, her mind slips back to the caustic drink she took Aug. 10 at a South Jordan barbecue joint.

"Her memory is taking that sip and her mouth and her throat being on fire," her husband, Jim Harding, said at a news conference Thursday. "When she goes to sleep at night, that's the thing that her mind surfaces."

For the first time since Jan Harding swallowed the lye solution in her drink at Dickey's Barbecue, her family spoke publicly about the injuries that nearly killed the 67-year-old retired teacher.

Jan Harding had filled a cup with sweet iced tea from the beverage bar at the restaurant, 689 W. South Jordan Parkway, and sat down for Sunday lunch with a couple from Crossroads Church, where her husband is interim pastor.

After one sip of tea, she began gagging and coughing.

She sputtered, "I think I drank acid," Jim Harding recalled.

As the burns developed in Jan's mouth and esophagus, Jim grabbed her plastic yellow Dickey's refill cup — "We're regulars," her husband explained — and rushed her to the hospital.

A litmus test at the hospital revealed the tea had a pH of 13, nearly as strong as drain cleaner.

"I expected they would just produce some magical mouthwash," Jim said, " ... and it would neutralize it all."

As the burns caused Jan's airways to swell shut, medics installed a breathing tube; her throat had become so constricted they had to use a nonstandard, narrow breathing tube, said Paxton Guymon, the Hardings' attorney. Jan wouldn't breathe on her own again for several days.

Jim said he had no clue how serious her burns were until he saw her face.

"I've known this lady for 49 years," he said. "I've never seen her that terrified."

Within an hour, police have said, employees at Dickey's discovered what had been mixed with the tea: an industrial degreasing solution, mistaken for sugar, comprised of 67 percent sodium hydroxide — the active ingredient in drain cleaner, commonly known as lye.

After a flight to the burn center at University Hospital, Jim and Jan were greeted by eight doctors in gowns and masks. They whisked her away.

Jim, bewildered, asked a nurse if his wife's life was in danger.

"My mind hadn't caught up to it yet," he said. "I was still looking for the mouthwash."

After doctors stabilized Jan, eight IV bags hung over her bed, Jim said. Family members held her hand through the night. Doctors could not assure them whether she'd recover. Later that week, they discovered deep, ulcerated burns on Jan's upper esophagus.

As of Wednesday, those burns were healing and Jan should be able to avoid major esophageal surgery, Jim said. She began whispering Saturday. Her first words were, "I love you," Jim said. She now is speaking, albeit with a strained voice, and has been able to drink some clear liquids.

But doctors don't know the likely long-term effects. Most people who consume lye do so deliberately, Guymon said, and they don't survive.

"It's disturbing not knowing what tomorrow will bring," said Scott Harding, Jan and Jim's son. Jan was undergoing tests Thursday to determine whether the muscles in her throat suffered permanent damage that could prevent her from eating some solid foods, Jim said. Doctors do not know when she will be able to return home.

Jim and Scott Harding said they have not decided whether to sue Dickey's for the error, but Guymon said he is investigating claims that restaurant employees discovered the cleaning chemical had been mixed with the sugar weeks before it was mixed into Jan's tea, but did not throw it out.

"Knowing there was this prior incident does change things," Guymon said. "Things could have and should have been done."

Witnesses reported that an employee told a manager that the sugar looked unusual, so the manager dipped a finger into the container and tasted the white substance, police have said. The manager sought hospital treatment for the resultant blisters and bleeding on her tongue, Guymon said.

"We were told this bucket was moved," Guymon said, "but we don't know where it was moved or how it was stored or why it was available Aug. 10."

An employee allegedly poured the chemical into a sugar container, thinking it was sugar, Guymon said. It remained unstirred at the top of the sugar container, so all six cups put into the tea dispenser consisted of pure cleaning chemical.

Guymon said he doesn't know where the container is now.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is reviewing the case for possible criminal charges.

Jim Harding said he is "sad" for the staff at Dickey's.

"Everybody involved in this is sad," he said.

He thanked those who have sent well wishes to his wife from all over the country and credited God with keeping the family grounded.

"Our God is amazing. We have not become angry and seeking retribution," he said. "Our faith matters."

He also begged food handlers to stay alert on the job.

"Be careful out there. I believe the restaurant industry is safe, but ... the food that you prepare or the drink that you prepare — you have a person's life in your hands."

ealberty@sltrib.com