The explosion occurred Dec. 8, 2020. (Photo courtesy Andrew Spencer)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Kanawha County civil jury has awarded the widow of a Belle Chemical Plant worker $15 million in connection with the December 2020 explosion that killed her husband.

John and Tina Gillenwater

The six-member jury announced the award Thursday following a wrongful death trial that stretched over two weeks before the jury and Kanawha County Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers.

Tina Gillenwater, of Hurricane, sued the plant owner at the of the explosion, Optima Belle, chemical company Clearon Corp. and others for the death of her husband, John Gillenwater.

Gillenwater, 42, was working at the plant the evening a new drying process was being used to remove water/moisture from chlorinated dry bleach. Clearon contracted with Optima to perform the process.

Attorney Scott Segal, who represented Tina Gillenwater in the case, said the jury agreed the explosion that rocked that part of eastern Kanawha County should have never happened.

“The chemical companies should have realized that loading 8,800 pounds of dried chlorinated bleach into this type of dryer was 100-percent guaranteed to cause an explosion,” Segal told MetroNews.

The explosion occurred at 10:02 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2020. The force of it blew Gillenwater out of the building where the dryer was located and destroyed the building.

Scott Segal

Segal said the jury listened intently to technical testimony. He said the trial ended up being the companies pointing fingers at each other. In the end, the jury found $10 million in damages under the state’s wrongful death statute. Clearon was found most responsible at 70% and Optima at 30%.

“The most important part of the trial was who the jury found to be the most responsible for not realizing that doing what they were doing was 100% guaranteed to cause an explosion that night and that explosion was almost the equivalent of two tons of TNT,” Segal said.

The jury also awarded $5 million for Gillenwater’s conscious pain and suffering. Segal said

“He was conscious for an hour and fifteen minutes after the explosion with horrible, horrible injuries that the jury had to listen to,” Segal said.

Gillenwater left behind his wife and two children. Segal said the trial was less about their suffering in the hours after the explosion and more about how they have used the tragedy to make them stronger.

“This is a deeply, deeply, special and very religious family and they used their faith not only to grieve but to come back strong,” Segal said. “This family can now move on to continue rebuilding their lives in the incredible way the jury heard that they crawled out of the darkest hours of this night to be some of the most wonderful human beings walking this earth today.”

In the days after the explosion, MetroNews spoke with Teays Valley-based River Ridge Church where John Gillenwater was a member.

“He had a way, even though he didn’t know you, that you walked away feeling or maybe even knowing, that he saw you, that he recognized you and you felt calmer and he was about to pass along that joy that was inside him. He was an incredible individual,” River Ridge Executive Pastor Chad Cobb told MetroNews at the time.

Segal credits the six-member jury and one alternate for being very attentive during the trial.

“They were focused the entire time,” he said.

He also said Judge Akers ran the trial efficiently.