MONTEZUMA, Ga.—A truck tire explosion on April 19 claimed the life of Robert W. Johnson Jr., 21, a tire technician at Wholesale Tire and Wheel Co. in Montezuma. Mr. Johnson and his 31-year-old brother, Wendell Johnson, were attempting to repair a crack in the rim when a size 11R22.5, Michelin truck tire exploded. Robert Johnson was struck in the head by a piece of the rim and killed almost instantly, said Montezuma Police Chief Lewis Cazenave.
Wendell Johnson, who sustained a fractured rib and bruises, was hospitalized overnight then released the next day.
"We're still in shock," said Jeff Bone, the owner of Wholesale Tire, describing Robert Johnson as "a very good tire man" who had gone through training and passed company testing.
"We don't let an employee go to the site of the business unless they go through testing," he said.
Mr. Bone had just purchased the former Davis Tire Co. in Montezuma on April 1.
A customer drove his truck to the shop and complained that he was having to put air in one of the tires twice a day, Mr. Bone said. Robert Johnson saw a crack in the rim and removed the wheel from the truck.
The tire was dismounted and Wendell Johnson attempted to repair the crack on the rim with a welding torch. Mr. Bone said Wholesale Tire has welding equipment on site to repair and replace mufflers and exhaust systems.
After the crack was repaired, the tire was re-mounted on the rim, inflated in a safety cage and placed back on the truck.
>From water bubbles on the rim, Robert Johnson observed that there was still a small leak, so the customer told him to order another wheel, Mr. Bone said. However, Mr. Johnson removed the rim and tire from the truck and asked his brother to weld the crack on the rim again.
This time the tire was still mounted on the rim when Wendell Johnson attempted to repair the crack, said Mr. Cazenave.
Wendell Johnson told police he welded the spot for about three minutes and pulled the torch away for a moment. When he reapplied the torch to the rim the tire exploded.
"I don't think the tire was full of air," Mr. Cazenave said. "Essentially, the rim was shot.|.|.|. It probably had no business being used."
Robert Johnson was struck in the head and chest by the interior part of the wheel and was dead when the rescue squad arrived, Mr. Cazenave said.
Mr. Bone said the force of the explosion was so great, it lifted the front end of a pickup truck off an adjacent lift, and the front wheels ended up on the shop floor.
Tire Business was unable to reach Wendell Johnson for comment, but he told the Macon Telegraph that his brother had worked on tires for about seven years.
Wendell Johnson, the paper said, said he had 10 years' experience in the tire business and had previously repaired cracked rims with the tire mounted and never had a problem.
Mr. Bone described Robert Johnson's work as, "quick, good and thorough, and he knew the proper techniques. I feel he meant well. He just tried too hard to please the customer."
Mr. Johnson left behind a wife and 1-year-old daughter.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Savannah, Ga., office is investigating the incident, said Roberto Sanchez, assistant area director. Dealership employees and the owner have been interviewed, he said, but it may be at least two months before OSHA issues a report.
"We're in a business that can't be taken for granted," Mr. Bone said. "Every safety measure needs to be stressed."
He said he tries to emphasize the importance of safety, urging employees to "take the five minutes extra and try to see the whole picture."