SALT LAKE CITY — A woman who was in critical condition after unknowingly sipping sweetened iced tea laced with a chemical found in drain cleaner has been steadily improving, but her husband says she’s having nightmares about the moment that nearly killed her.
Jim Harding says his wife, Jan Harding, woke up frightened in the middle of the night this week in the burn unit of a Salt Lake City hospital after dreaming about going to a restaurant and ordering the drink that made her say, “I think I drank acid.”
“Her memory is taking that sip, and her mouth and throat being on fire and spitting and gagging and doing everything she could to get that out of her mouth,” Jim Harding said at a news conference Thursday. “I’m concerned for her because it scares her.”
Jim Harding said he’s not upset or seeking vengeance after finding out lye had been mixed into his wife’s drink early last week at Dickey’s Barbecue in South Jordan, a Salt Lake City suburb. The retired Baptist pastor said he feels sad for everyone involved and is focused solely on his wife’s recovery, not criminal charges or lawsuits.
Salt Lake County prosecutors are reviewing the findings of a police investigation and have not yet announced whether charges will be filed.
Authorities have said the chemical ended up in an iced-tea dispenser Aug. 10 after an employee added it, thinking it was sweetener. Lye looks like sugar, but the odorless chemical is used for degreasing deep fryers.
Jan Harding, 67, suffered deep burns to her mouth, throat and upper esophagus. She had been the first one to take a drink from the tainted batch, and no one else was harmed.
The Hardings’ attorney, Paxton Guymon, said Thursday that his investigation has revealed that an employee at the restaurant burned herself a month earlier on the same substance.
Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc. issued a statement last week, saying what happened to Harding was an isolated incident and nothing like it had happened in the 73 years the Dallas-based chain has operated.
Guymon said the previous incident occurred July 5 when a Dickey’s employee stuck her finger in a sugar container and licked it to test if it had any of the chemical cleaner.
Her tongue started bleeding, blisters formed and she still is not back to normal, Guymon said. That employee quit the day before Jan Harding was burned, he said.
“To me, it means that the company was on notice that there was a hazardous substance that wasn’t properly labeled, that wasn’t properly controlled,” Guymon said. “And that things should have and could have been done to prevent my client, Mrs. Harding, from being injured.”
The company did not comment on the new allegations.
Jim Harding, 66, remains stunned at how quickly an innocent sip of iced tea turned deadly. As he drove his wife to the hospital, he said he was expecting doctors to pull out a magical mouth wash that would neutralize the effects.
“We had no idea what was going on,” he said Thursday.
Soon after the got to the hospital, they were aboard a helicopter being rushed to a trauma center. When they arrived, Jan Harding was taken into a room full of doctors and nurses who inserted tubes in her throat.
That’s when Jim Harding realized the severity of what was happening. He told her his wife he loved her and looked into her eyes. “I have never seen her that terrified,” he said of the woman he met 49 years ago.
She was in critical condition for a week afterward and family members feared she would die.
By Saturday, she had begun whispering and breathing on her own, and she stood up briefly with help from nurses. Now, her badly burned mouth, throat and upper esophagus are beginning to heal, and she’s talking and walking. How she’ll recover long-term is still unclear, Jim Harding said.
He said he is grateful to God, the doctors and his family’s supporters. He said well-wishes have come in from around the country. The family has received a handmade get-well card from a 9-year-old in San Diego and flowers from a couple in New Hampshire.
“If you want your confidence restored in humanity, you walk through waters like this and see how people respond,” he said.
Jim Harding said he hopes this incident leads to restaurants taking more precautions.
“People’s lives are in your hands,” he said. “Be careful.”