On the morning of Easter Monday, David and Tracey Clark were cleaning their milking shed.
David – a central Taranaki farmer – did the floor and left the chemicals on to soak while he went to feed the cows.
Tracey, clad in goggles and a breathing mask, finished washing down the machinery before innocently tipping her cleaning liquid out onto the floor near the drain.
It was a mistake that turned a normal day into a toxic nightmare for the sharemilking couple.
READ MORE: Farmer in serious condition after inhaling fumes from accidentally mixed chemicals
“I tipped the bucket out when I had finished and it was pretty much instant mustard gas,” Tracey said.
But because of the protective gear, she couldn’t smell the potentially lethal chlorine gas the combination of chemicals produced.
However, as soon as David returned to the shed he knew something was wrong.
“I was trying to work out where the smell was coming from, I was in there for about three minutes,” he said.
“My lungs were getting tight and my throat was closing up, I could hardly breathe. It felt like I was dying, I could hardly breathe.”
Tracey removed her mask and was almost immediately overcome by the fumes.
“I was coughing that much I vomited to get it out,” she said.
“It was just a pure accident, he walked in at the wrong time.”
Fearing for her husband’s life, Tracey called emergency services.
“He was looking really terrified when I was on the phone to 111 and he just kept telling me ‘I can’t breathe’.”
“Watching him struggling to breathe, you just feel like you can’t do anything and I wanted to do so much to help him, while trying to control my breathing as well.
“We have six children between us, including a four-year-old, together and he could’ve been left without parents at that young age.”
It was a real possibility – chlorine gas is so poisonous that it was used as a chemical weapon by the Germans in World War I and II.
When volunteer firefighters arrived the could smell the gas from about 200 metres away from the shed.
The couple were made to strip off their overalls and gumboots which firefighters burnt along with David’s cellphone which had been in his pocket.
During the couple’s hasty trip to Taranaki Base Hospital in a St John ambulance paramedics were ready with a scalpel to cut David’s windpipe to allow him to continue to get oxygen, Tracey said.
When they arrived at the hospital staff were waiting for them wearing full protective bio-hazard suits.
The couple were put through a decontamination shower, the inside of the ambulance also had to be thoroughly cleaned, before David was taken to the intensive care unit where he spent the night hooked up to a range of machines to help him breathe.
“We were worried he could go downhill,” Tracey said.
She had to return to the farm to milk on Monday afternoon and said the aroma of the gas could still be slightly smelt even after the fire brigades had hosed everything down and run water down the drain for about four hours.
David was discharged from hospital on Tuesday afternoon, but he was still having difficulty breathing a day later and had another check-up with the doctor.
Tracey said the whole thing had been a terrifying, unfortunate experience.
“I knew not to mix chemicals and it was a pure accident.”
David said the floor and plant were not usually cleaned at the same time.
The couple were grateful for the support and assistance provided by the firefighters, St John and hospital staff as well as their friends and bosses during the ordeal.
WorkSafe NZ had been advised of the incident and it had been assessed as appropriate for a Duty Holder Review, which was a self-review process guided by the organisation, a spokesman said.
Tracey said she still felt a bit emotional about what had happened but the couple felt they had had a lucky escape.
“I slept a lot better last night having him beside me,” she said.
“We are very, very lucky.”