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2 Field Workers Found Dead Inside Tank

Tragedy: Authorities believe the pair were overcome by fumes while cleaning fertilizer container. But investigators haven't ruled out foul play.


FILLMORE — Two employees at a citrus orchard just outside the city were found dead Wednesday afternoon inside a 1,000-gallon tank of fertilizer in a field of lemon trees, authorities said.

Ranch manager Mike Mobley discovered Miguel Lopez, 35, and Palemon Rangel Yanez, 44, about 1:30 p.m. inside the nearly full, 3-foot-tall tank that held a liquefied sulfate-based fertilizer, authorities said.

The men had failed to return to their Oxnard homes after work Tuesday night, and authorities believe they climbed inside the tank to clean it and were overcome by fumes in the enclosed space.

"They don't drink or smoke, and I thought, 'Where are they?' We just didn't know," said a teary Carmen Lopez, the 30-year-old wife of Miguel Lopez and mother of the couple's 2-month-old baby.

Lopez said she called hospitals and law enforcement officers throughout the night and contacted ranch officials Wednesday.

The ranch, at 3095 Telegraph Road, is owned by MVP Properties in Oxnard.

According to authorities, the men, both company employees, were assigned about 4 p.m. Tuesday to clean the tank, one of four white, polyurethane receptacles that sit side-by-side in the orchard.

The fertilizer stored in the tanks is used to stimulate growth on avocado, lemon and orange trees. Investigators took air and fertilizer samples to test for abnormalities.

The pair were reportedly last seen walking toward the tanks about 4 p.m. At the end of the day, another employee came to the same area, found a gate open and closed it before going home.

When the ranch manager was contacted Wednesday, he returned to the area where the men were last assigned, authorities said.

It is unclear if the lid to the tank was open, but both men were found floating inside, authorities said.

According to Mitch Breese, a senior deputy coroner's investigator, no signs of trauma were found and there was no evidence of foul play.

Regardless, detectives were investigating several possibilities, including homicide and suicide.

Autopsies are scheduled for today.

Neither man was wearing any kind of protective clothing other than rubber work boots, witnesses said.

Dean Fryer, a spokesman for Cal-OSHA in San Francisco, said state safety officials had not been notified late Wednesday but will investigate as soon as they receive a report.

"We really don't know what happened," Ventura County Sheriff's Senior Deputy Kim Garrett said. "We are treating this as a crime scene. If it is determined that this was an industrial accident, then the investigation will shift focus."

What baffles authorities is that the tank, about 9 feet in diameter, has only one small opening, a hole on top about 20 inches across.

"You don't fall into that size of a hole," said Ventura County Fire Battalion Chief Ranger Dorn.

Why both men would crawl inside the tank to clean it made no sense to investigators, who were planning to interview ranch employees about the tanks' routine maintenance procedures.

A dozen firefighters and hazardous-materials specialists were sent to the scene to identify the substance in the tank before pulling the bodies out--a process that took more than two hours.

The victims, both fully clothed, were pulled from the tank about 4:30 p.m. after firefighters cut a wider hole in the tank to reach the men.

During the operation, several firefighters wore full gear with oxygen tanks and masks while other authorities stood around the tank with no breathing apparatuses.

The ranch, which sits on the north side of California 126 between Fillmore and Santa Paula, is the former Spalding Ranch, which records show was sold to a family trust in Oxnard two years ago.

It was unclear if the owner, Prasad D. Mummaneni of Oxnard, had been notified.

Lopez had worked there a few months, and his friend, Yanez, was hired a couple of years ago, friends of the men said.

Gorman is a Times staff writer. Wolcott is a Times Community News reporter.

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