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SOUTH JORDAN — Jan Harding knew immediately that something wasn't right.
"Jan Harding went to the iced tea dispenser and filled it up, took a sip, and immediately coughed it out. Spat it out. And her first words to her husband, she turned to him and said, 'I think I just drank acid,'" her attorney Paxton Guymon recounted Thursday.
Harding remained in critical condition Thursday afternoon after accidentally putting a highly toxic industrial cleaning chemical in her mouth while believing she was drinking tea at a restaurant.
Harding, 67, of Sandy, did not swallow the chemical, but she suffered severe burns in her mouth and throat, said South Jordan police officer Sam Winkler.
Based on the current evidence, Guymon said it appeared that a strong chemical used for cleaning deep fryers was mistakenly added to the iced tea mix.
"Either the store manager or an employee put six cups of this white powder substance into the iced tea mixer and stirred it up, thinking perhaps that it was sugar," he said.
The family believes it was an accident that should not have happened, but they are not angry. Right now, they are just "really concerned" about Harding's health, Guymon said.
However, while the family was not thinking about lawsuits on Thursday, Guymon said they will be interested to see what police find in their investigation, and how such a preventable event could have happened.
"Personally, it's shocking to me that a substance of this toxicity, that's this harmful, could be anywhere near the food preparation area. And why it's not marked clearly is beyond me," he said.
The incident happened just after noon Sunday at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, 683 W. South Jordan Parkway (10600 South). Harding was eating with her family when she poured herself a glass of sweet tea from a drink dispenser. The tea was premixed and put in a vat for customers. Winkler said she was the first and only customer of the day to pour a drink of sweet tea.
"And when she began to consume that beverage, it instantly started burning her mouth. She spit it out, didn’t swallow any, and the burning was so intense (she was rushed) to Riverton Hospital," Winkler said.
From Riverton, Harding was flown to University Hospital Burn Center. Guymon said Thursday that Harding was sedated under strong pain medications, was hooked up to a ventilator and could only respond to questions with slight nods of her head for "yes" and "no." Additional tests were expected to be conducted Friday to determine if her lungs, esophagus or stomach were damaged.
"Our preliminary information suggests a highly toxic industrial cleaning chemical was accidentally mixed with the beverage," Winkler said. "The chemical is used for cleaning of a fryer. The main ingredient in that is sodium hydroxide. And I guess it’s 67 percent sodium hydroxide in that cleaning chemical."
No other customers were burned. Winkler said Dickey's employees and management were cooperating with police to determine how the chemical was mixed with the sweet tea.
"It looks to be (an accident), but we’re not 100 percent sure one way or another," he said.
Even though the incident was believed to be an accident, Winkler said, a criminal investigation was being conducted. All employees and managers of the restaurant were being interviewed, and surveillance video was being checked to see whether it covered the backroom area where the tea was believed to be mixed, he said.
After the investigation is completed, Winkler said either the city or district attorney would determine whether any negligence charges should be filed. As of Thursday, Winkler said he did not know whether enough evidence was available for charges to be filed.
The restaurant remained open as of Thursday.
"We did notify the health department on this. They went out there, (and) they did a full inspection of the restaurant. They haven’t found anything to be out of the ordinary. The restaurant is safe. The health department did not shut it down," Winkler said.
John Thomson, president of Finger Lickin Brands, the company that owns Dickey's, issued a brief prepared statement: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to our guest and her family. Safety is something we take very seriously when it comes to our valued guests, as well as our own team members. At this time we are fully involved in cooperating with all parties. Out of respect for the privacy of our guest and her family, we will reserve further remarks for the time being."