Twenty-three-year-old Robert Herweyer was still a newlywed. He got married last November, and his wife, Joy, is due with their first child in the next few days.
At work in Saugatuck, Mich., on the morning of July 26, Herweyer was helping to clean a 12-foot-tall plastic tank of molasses.
When the level of the syrup got too low to pump out of the container, Herweyer climbed into the tank to adjust the valve, according to his boss.
“Then something happened which caused him to either lose consciousness or fall or something that resulted in him then being down in the actual molasses himself,” Allegan County Undersheriff Frank Baker told WOOD TV in Grand Rapids.
Authorities believe he was under the molasses for at least four minutes.
Herweyer’s boss, Agri-Technology owner David Alexander, grabbed an electric saw, cut the tank open, pulled him out and started CPR.
Allegan County authorities, who released a detailed report of the accident this week, believe fumes or a medical episode might have played a part in his death.
“He had so much to live for, especially his child,” his father, Brian Herweyer, told MLive.com.
He said his son, who had five siblings, and his new wife had just moved into a new home three weeks ago. Robert had a lot of friends, many of whom visited his parents’ house after they heard that he had died.
“He really meant a lot to them. He listened, he cared, he laughed with them. He made them feel special,” his father said. “I think God used him to brighten people’s days.”
According to the Grand Rapids Press, Herweyer put on a pair of waders and had on a safety mask when he used straps attached to a forklift to lower himself into the molasses tank.
After he adjusted the valve he started to climb out of the tank but then stopped moving, his friend and co-worker Kevin Deherrera told police.
Deherrera started yelling at him, asking him what was wrong, but Herweyer did not respond or move. Deherrera tried to lift his friend out before he ran for help, the sheriff’s report says. That’s when Alexander cut the tank open.
The emergency room physician who worked on Herweyer at Holland Community Hospital told police he had syrup in his lungs and died from drowning.
Witnesses told police they saw Herweyer lying at the bottom of the tank under the molasses, his safety mask barely visible above the liquid.
The sheriff’s department has not named an official cause of death. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation as well.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise $50,000 for his widow and baby.