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YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — There were no flames, no smoke, no warning.

Almost seven years ago, a 16-year-old bird hunter stepped onto a dusty-looking pile of grape pulp and sank into a deep pit of smoldering 500-degree mash.

Phillip Hickle, then a sophomore at Prosser High School, would somehow manage to drag himself out, but he would still lose both his legs to severe burns.

"The top of this pile, it was kind of leveled out — like a draw that had been filled in," said Prosser Fire Chief Doug Merritt, recalling his visit to the site with a fire investigator on Oct. 25, 1996, the day after the accident. "The top is kind of hard. You can walk on it, and all of a sudden we both broke through. It was extremely hot."

Here in the Yakima Valley — sometimes called the nation's fruit bowl for its bounty of crops — juice grapes are a $40 million industry. Washington is the No. 1 producer of Concord grapes.

Fruit juice companies — Seneca Foods Corp., of Marion, N.Y., and Milne Fruit Products, of Prosser — had for years contracted with Whitney Farms to haul away and dispose of the mash — grape skins, pulp, seeds and vine — left over from their local processing plants.

The material was dumped in large pits and covered with soil. As it decomposed, spontaneous combustion would ignite the material. It smoldered at temperatures as high as 507 degrees.

There had been complaints to both state and local agencies about the decomposing fruit waste piles, and the state Department of Ecology had been pressuring the two companies for years to dispose of the material in a licensed landfill.

While the practice of using fruit waste as fertilizer is an old one, the key to safe management of the mash is to keep the piles no more than a few inches deep and apply it to the land fairly quickly, said Rick Dawson, supervisor of the land-use waste and water section for the Benton-Franklin Health District in Kennewick.

Dawson said even material at permitted compost facilities must be carefully managed in an effort to prevent fires.

"This was entirely different," contends Rick Kimbrough, the Grandview lawyer representing the Hickle family. "A huge accumulation of this material was in … one concentrated spot. In some places, this waste was maybe 15 feet deep, covering a 2 to 3 acre area."

Hickle was severely burned over more than 55 percent of his body. He spent nearly nine months in Seattle hospitals and had at least 10 surgeries.

A young pheasant hunter, Jon LeClaire, then 21, said he fell into the waste pit several days before Hickle's accident. LeClaire suffered second- and third-degree burns and was treated at a hospital.

Hickle's family sued both Whitney and the juice producers. Whitney settled for $1 million.

In arguments before the state Supreme Court last year, lawyers for the juice producers contended that they should not be held responsible for Whitney Farms' failure to properly manage the grape mash. They also contended that fruit waste wasn't specifically designated as hazardous by the state.

In a 5-4 ruling in March, the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the waste was covered by the state's Hazardous Waste Management Act.

"Large quantities of decomposing organic material, if not carefully regulated and tended, can spontaneously ignite," Justice Tom Chambers wrote for the majority. "This has been known since at least the first century A.D."

The ruling clears the way for the Hickles to return to Benton County Superior Court and press their suit against Seneca and Milne.

The companies referred questions to their lawyers in Seattle, David Jacobi, representing Seneca, and Theodore Preg, representing Milne. Neither returned calls seeking comment.

As a teenager, Hickle was a snowboarder, a swimmer and a drummer in the high school band. He had planned to enter the military.

Doctors told the family then that if he had not been in such good physical condition the outcome could have been worse. Calluses on his hands, from weight lifting, may have saved his fingers.

Today, Hickle uses a wheelchair and lives with his grandparents outside of Prosser. He graduated from high school and has taken some courses at Columbia Basin College.

He did not want to be interviewed for this story.

"I think he's still very, very self-conscious about his injuries," Kimbrough said.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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