SALT LAKE CITY — Most nights when Jan Harding goes to sleep, her mind takes her back to a desperate moment of gagging and spitting out a sip of ice tea that would almost end her life.
Harding and her husband were meeting some friends for lunch at Dickey's Barbecue Pit in South Jordan on Aug. 10. After attempting to drink the tea, she told her husband she thought it was acid. The two immediately went to a hospital, where the 67-year-old woman was later intubated and sedated in critical condition.
Jim Harding recalls the bewilderment he and his wife felt not knowing what had happened.
"I've known this lady for 49 years. I have never seen her that terrified," he said at a news event Thursday.
Jan Harding suffered severe burns to her mouth and throat, with damage to the entire upper third of her esophagus. She was transported to the University of Utah's Burn Unit, where she is currently undergoing treatment.
"At one point last week, she had eight bags hanging above the bed," Jim Harding said. "Her arms are black and blue from all the needles in them."
A litmus test, which ranges from one to 14, was done on the cup she drank from and produced a 13 — the alkaline equivalent of battery acid.
But Jan Harding's condition is improving.
Last Friday she could breathe without aid from a respirator. The next day, she could whisper. The day after that, she had "a little voice," Jim Harding said.
"It wasn't her voice, but it was a voice, and we were happy with that," he said.
Almost two weeks after the incident, investigators are still trying to determine how about six cups of the industrial-strength powdered solution used to clean fryers ended up in about a gallon and a half of ice tea.
South Jordan Police Sgt. Sam Winkler says the department has concluded its investigation and has turned the evidence and its findings over to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office for a second look.
"It does appear to be accidental. That's what our initial reports look like," Winkler said. "We just want the district attorney's office to review it to make sure an independent set of eyes saw exactly what we're seeing, make sure we investigated it as thoroughly as we believe we did."
Police are also investigating whether the incident is connected to a similar occurrence that happened about a month earlier.
On July 5, an employee of the restaurant was rearranging some bins and saw that the sugar bin was low. She reached into a another container and poured what appeared to be sugar into the bin. She sampled the mixture with her finger and quickly realized it was not sugar when she put it to her tongue, according to the Hardings' attorney, Paxton Guymon.
The solution burned the worker's tongue to the point that it started bleeding, Guymon said. She still has not fully recovered.
Guymon said he believes the restaurant failed to dispose of the contaminated sugar, even after employees knew it was toxic.
"Initially we thought this was an isolated accident. But knowing that there is this prior incident does change things," he said. "To me, it means that the company noticed that there was a hazardous substance that wasn't properly labeled … and that things should have and could have been done to prevent my client, Mrs. Harding, from being injured. It's a different landscape now."
Guymon said he believes the same bucket of sugar and cleaning solution was used to make the ice tea, though police have not confirmed the two incidents are related.
Police say restaurant employees have cooperated in the investigation, and a health inspector cleared the establishment following Jan Harding's injury.
Winkler said it was unclear when the district attorney's office would conclude its portion of the investigation.
In the meantime, Jan Harding continues to have nightmares of drinking the tea and trying to spit it out while it burned in her mouth, Jim Harding said. The family has no ill will toward the restaurant's employees, he said, though he's hoping greater caution and awareness will prevail as a result of the incident.
"I'm not mad. It's sad. We're all sad," Jim Harding said. "One thing we want to come out of this is to send out a message of 'be careful out there.' … People's lives are in your hands, so just be careful. We're not mad at you. Just be careful."
Jim Harding, an interim pastor at Crossroads Church in Sandy, says he and his family are grateful for the support from strangers across the country, as well as divine blessings.
"I think this is a time to say, 'Our faith matters,'" he said.
The family had no plans to pursue legal recourse against the company, though Jim Harding did not rule out such action.
"I'm not concerned about that now. I'm concerned about getting my wife home," he said. "Once she's better, we'll think about other things."
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