Gary Copenhaver died from Legionnaires’ disease in September 2016. At first, his family thought he had the flu or pneumonia.

“I have never seen him so sick and quiet. he was really quiet,” his widow, Brenda Copenhaver, said.

Gary Copenhaver had a high fever, body aches and a headache. He eventually went to the emergency room and was sent home with pain pills.

“He said, 'Dude! I’m sick as a dog. I can’t even get out of bed,'" his sister, Gloria Copenhaver, said.

Instead of getting better, Garry Copenhaver got even worse. His family took him back to the hospital a few days later. Doctors began testing him for rare problems. They eventually discovered Legionnaires’ disease.

“It all happened so fast. They were putting him on life support and we needed to get up there,” Garry Copenhaver's daughter, Cassie Copenhaver, said.

Garry Copenhaver died just a few days later.

Legionnaires’ disease and Ford

Legionnaires’ disease is rare. It’s caused by bacteria you somehow inhale.

Experts point to large air conditioning systems and misters. That’s why infectious disease experts ask patients if they have stayed in hotels and ask where they work.

If a person gets sick, local health departments look for patterns in patients.

Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says:Legionellas’ outbreaks occur when two or more people are exposed to legionella and get sick in the same place at about the same time.”

Ford’s Claycomo plant has had at least six confirmed cases of Legionaries in the past three years.

Garry Copenhaver's family immediately suspected the Claycomo Ford plant. They say if he wasn’t working or sleeping, you’d find him on his motorcycle.

“That was the only place we could think of,” Gloria Copenhaver said.

“They’re on a line with air-conditioning. It’s pretty clear there is no other place he could have gotten it from,” Garry Copenhaver's son, William Copenhaver, said.

Ford denied Garry Copenhaver’s workman’s compensation claim. The family says at the time of his death, testing never revealed a direct connection to the plant. But, they say the pattern of cases should be proof enough.

“We aren’t going to get an apology but we want them to acknowledge that people are getting this at the Ford plant,” Brenda Copenhaver said.

The timeline

In 2015, two Ford employees tested positive for Legionaries.

Clay County Health Department emails obtained by KCTV5 News hint at a third possible case where testing wasn’t possible because the person was already on antibiotics.

Health department employees questioned if it the problem was the Claycomo Ford plant or possibly where a company outing took place. Tests for legionella inside the plant were negative.

Also in 2015, the Kansas City Health Department revealed to KCTV5's investigative unit they also had a case in 2015 of a Ford worker with Legionnaires’ disease. All of this was unknown to the Copenhavers when Garry Copenhaver got sick in 2016.

“Devastating. If we had known initially that that was a possibility, we could have saved him. Doctors could have saved him,” Gloria Copenhaver said.

“We had no clue that was even a possibility,” Brenda Copenhaver said.

It appears no health department required a posting because tests inside the plant revealed no problems. It’s also unclear if local health departments shared information with each other.

Garry Copenhaver died of Legionnaires’ disease in May 2016. A friend who worked near him in the plant tested positive for Legionaries four months later. His doctor diagnosed him early.

In November 2017, a female ford employee tested positive for Legionnaires. KCTV5’s investigative unit has learned when she got sick, previous Legionnaires' patients contacted her family with that information. That woman spent two weeks in a medically induced coma and underwent surgery. She survived, but her family tells us she’s now on dialysis and very sick.

Ford’s response

Ford released the following statements to KCTV5:"While we are aware of four cases of Legionnaire’s disease among our workforce since 2015, there is no indication that they contracted the disease at the plant. Out of the 175 tests for legionella bacteria we have performed at the plant in the last four-and-a-half years, we have had five results that indicated a low concentration of legionella bacteria were present. None of those results indicated a level that presented a health risk to our workers.We take the safety of our workforce very seriously. We regularly test for legionella out of an abundance of caution and have a comprehensive, industry-leading, water-quality management process that is more stringent than federal guidelines. Legionella is common and naturally occurs in water systems like rivers, streams and lakes. The vast majority of those exposed to the bacteria do not become ill."

Ford released this statement regarding Garry Copenhaver:“Worker’s compensation benefits are to assist those who sustained a work-related injury or illness. While we are saddened by Mr. Copenhaver’s death, there is no indication that he contracted Legionnaires’ disease at the plant. We cannot comment further due to pending litigation.”

“I don’t know how much proof there needs to be. How many cases there needs to be or how many more deaths there needs to be. They should have taken care of it with the first one. They should have taken care of it with the first case the first person who got sick,” Cassie Copenhaver said.

Investigation continues

About 30-percent of the rare legionella cases in Clay County are connected to Ford’s Claycomo plant.

Jackson County and Wyandotte County both refuse to reveal if their Legionnaires’ patients worked at Ford citing medical privacy. So, it is unknown how many more cases could share a connection with the that Ford plant.

KCTV5's investigative unit knows Jackson County has at least one case because that’s where Garry Copenhaver lived and that health department took his report.

Ford employees and families may contact KCTV5's investigative department directly by clicking here.

Copyright 2018 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.


Investigative Reporter

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