What happened to the man who allegedly fell into a South Carolina shredder?
Alex Burrell Gordon, 20, of Greer, is now presumed dead after microscopic pieces of skin, fat and bones found stuck in the recycling shredder’s conveyor belt were connected to his DNA. But not officially. His remains had been first identified by a blood test as “not human,” and so the shredder continued to run, destroying additional evidence, and perhaps, the family’s chance at closure.
Nexstar’s WSPA gathered information about his disappearance by interviewing family, lawyers and law enforcement agencies. This is what they found.
May 4, 2022, started as a typical day for the Gordon family. Michael Gordon and his son Alex Burrell Gordon were sharing a meal near midnight on the night shift at Industrial Recovery and Recycling in Greer, South Carolina.
They both ate a Wendy’s hamburger meal, and then father and son went separate ways.
For Alex Burrell Gordon, it appears to have been his last meal.
His father left to check out the vacuum system for the extruder, which heats and shapes plastic. It had suddenly clogged up, preventing the machine from running properly. Meanwhile, his 20-year-old son, Alex Burrell Gordon had allegedly returned to the shredder at the recycling plant.
An hour later, Michael Gordon finished the repairs and returned to the shredder.
His son, however, was nowhere to be found. Maybe he went somewhere to take a break? Perhaps he was taking a nap somewhere? Michael Gordon couldn’t be sure where he had gone, but he wasn’t there.
Then another problem arose. Something was slowing down the flow of material on a conveyor belt going to an extruder.
Michael Gordon continued looking for his son, while other workers emptied the silos feeding the conveyor and put the contents in a box to sort through later.
Workers, however, noticed something strange on the conveyor belt.
When he returned and saw the strange material, Michael turned off the shredder and went to look inside the machine itself to see if Alex Burrell Gordon had fallen inside, but no trace of human remains was found.
They looked at the handful of material again.
“It looks like a cat,” one employee recalled someone saying at the time.
In the past, animals like possums, cats, rats and snakes had occasionally made a home in the recycling material. They would sometimes get run through the shredder by accident, resulting in something that looked like the strange material they were looking at then.
Without more evidence, the shredder was turned back on.
“If he fell into the machine, there would be blood everywhere,” an employee said he overheard a plant manager say later.
Where did the blood go? No one reported seeing any blood, but some have speculated that the heat generated by the shredder may have caused it to evaporate. It’s not clear what a shredder would do to a human body.
Michael Gordon filed a missing person’s report on May 5 and told sheriff’s deputies about the box with the strange contents that came off the conveyor belt, but when deputies arrived, they were told there were no “remains” to inspect.
On May 9, Michael Gordon tried again to have authorities inspect the remains, despite being put on leave after his son’s disappearance and then later fired by the plant. He went to the plant with deputies and plant managers there at the same time. Michael Gordon began pulling out strange material by hand from underneath a conveyor belt.
Over a month would pass before authorities determined the remains they thought belonged to a cat instead matched Alex Burrell Gordon’s DNA.
During that time, the machine continued to run.
What happened to Alex Burrell Gordon?
Industrial Recovery and Recycling takes old plastics and carpets and grinds them up into reusable products, including polypropylene.
“With capacity to process over 60 million pounds of material per year, IRR’s facilities remain both robust and highly versatile, with the abilities to process a wide variety of both polyester (PET) and polypropylene (PP) waste materials. IRR is one of only a couple independent industrial plastics recycler and reprocessor (sic) with this magnitude of capacity and capabilities in the entire state of South Carolina,” according to the company’s website.
In order to process recyclables, the company uses a forklift that lifts a container that dumps material into the shredder, according to OSHA.
After dumping the material into the shredder, an operator at times will go up to the platform and clear out the bin of any debris, OSHA said in its citation.
“The trail of the evidence is leading us to believe that Alex [Burrell Gordon] may have simply fallen into the shredder while accomplishing the clearing of the bin,” said attorney Charles Hodge, who is representing the father of the missing man.
“The machine was operational at the time that we believe he cleared the debris. We don’t know that for a fact, but it makes sense. And again, we have to verify it through proper investigation, but the machine was ongoing and running. And it’s very, very powerful,” Hodge said.
Hodge said he will seek damages through the Workers Compensation Commission.
“This is peculiar because we’re in the very unfortunate position of having to have Alex Burrell Gordon declared deceased. And so that’s kind of a simultaneous process,” he said.
“We know that this machine, this particular machine had been investigated previously by OSHA. And I think it had to do with the railing,” he said.
In 2017, Industrial Recovery and Recycling was cited by OSHA for failing to protect employees working on its shredders, most of which are Vecoplan RG62/200 Single Shaft Shredders. The German-made shredders operate at 200 horsepower and could pulverize almost anything put inside them, including bone.
“Two employees approximately eleven (11) feet above the cutting rotor for the Vecoplan Shredder’s, Serial Number: 9222010, feeder hopper were not protected by a guardrail system, safety net system, travel restraint system or personal fall arrest system in Building 2,” according to the 2017 OSHA citation.
The employer provided body belts and connectors to prevent employees from falling into shredders in Building 1 and 4 but not in Building 2, according to Plant Manager Brian Morton, in the 2017 OSHA report.
The top rail for the guardrail system for the feeder hopper was approximately 24.5-inches high, according to the OSHA report in 2017.
As a result of OSHA’s findings, Industrial Recovery and Recycling raised the railing platforms that surrounded the shredders to 45-inches, according to the 2017 OSHA report, in compliance with state guidelines for safety.
Alex Burrell Gordon stood at about 6 feet tall, far above the approximate 3.5-foot railing that protected people from falling into the shredder. It likely wouldn’t be tall enough to stop him if he fell.
Why isn’t there more evidence?
There are allegedly no security cameras inside the plant. Alex Burrell Gordon was seen on an entryway camera going into the plant at the start of his shift, but he did not appear to leave, according to the camera.
The plant is sparsely staffed at night, and no one reported hearing or seeing anyone in distress.
It appears there are no witnesses.
Timeline of events and delayed investigation
OSHA opened a new investigation at Industrial Recovery and Recycling on June 16, more than one month after family and friends suspected Alex Burrell Gordon fell into the shredder.
The investigation is complicated by the difficulty of finding more remains. Without a body or death certificate, Alex Burrell Gordon’s disappearance continues to be a missing person’s case for law enforcement.
The following list is a timeline, based on interviews and reports from family, attorneys and law enforcement officials.
|May 4, 2022||Alex Burrell Gordon arrived for the night shift, outdoor security footage shows.|
|May 5, 2022||A missing person’s report is filed for Alex Burrell Gordon.|
|May 6, 2022||Spartanburg County deputies visit the plant but find no evidence of remains.|
|May 9, 2022||Michael Gordon shows “remains” to deputies. They were misidentified at the time as being not human by a blood test conducted at the plant, authorities later confirmed.|
|June 10, 2022||A DNA test shows human remains from the shredder belong to Alex Burrell Gordon.|
|June 14, 2022||Spartanburg County coroner is contacted and visits the plant for an inspection.|
|June 16, 2022||OSHA is contacted and opened a new investigation at Industrial Recovery and Recycling.|
|July 6, 2022||Coroner was unable to issue a death certificate because no body was found.|
WSPA previously reported that Alex Burrell Gordon was reported missing on May 5 after he was last seen during his work on the overnight shift at Industrial Recycling and Recovery, Inc.
Security camera footage of him allegedly arriving at the plant on May 4 was released, but he was never seen on camera leaving the plant the next day — or ever again. No indoor surveillance camera footage is known to exist.
On May 6, a uniformed patrol supervisor with the sheriff’s office visited the plant but found no evidence, according to Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger.
On May 9, Michael Gordon, sheriff’s deputies and plant managers inspect the “remains” at Industrial Recovery and Recycling under the conveyor belt. The material was tested on the scene, but the results came back “negative” for human blood, according to the coroner.
“The material found under the conveyor belt was recovered by a detective and was immediately tested by a presumptive testing module that tests for human blood vs. animal blood. It was negative on scene,” the coroner wrote in a report.
The material, however, was dried out, which could have led to the misidentification.
Meanwhile, the shredder continued to run.
The material was later hydrated to test for human blood again. This time, it tested positive for human blood.
A month later, on June 10, a test for DNA of the remains found at the plant came back as a positive match for Alex Burrell Gordon. The coroner became involved in the case at this time.
After meeting with the sheriff’s office, the coroner’s office arranged additional exams for the material. The results showed the remains were consistent with “human fat, microscopically minute particles of skin and small pieces of bone,” according to the report from the coroner.
The remains had been incorrectly identified as “nonhuman,” based on a blood test conducted at the plant, causing a delay in the authorities responding to the accident as a death. Meanwhile, the shredder continued to run, destroying additional evidence.
The search for additional remains is now complicated by the fact that at least 60,000 pounds of plastic material had been processed through the shredder after he was declared missing, the plant told authorities.
Overall, approximately two ounces of remains were recovered by deputies from the conveyor belt, an amount roughly the size of a golf ball, the coroner’s office said.
Why isn’t there more evidence?
Attorney Buck Brandt, who is also representing the father, said it could take months to get Alex Gordon declared deceased.
“There has to be a court order making a determination that Alex is deceased,” he said.
The issue would likely go before a local probate judge later this year, he said.
Brandt compared this case to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, where only debris remained of a plane that disappeared with more than 200 people on board.
In the meantime, he said, the discovery process through the worker’s compensation lawsuit might provide additional clues.
The attorneys’ for Michael Gordon are scheduled to visit the recycling plant on Aug. 10.
As of now, Alex Burrell Gordon is a missing person for law enforcement but is presumed dead, according to the coroner’s report.
“We are unable to issue a conventional death certificate in this matter. State regulations require another remedy for the family to get closure because there is no body. The family has been made aware of the process,” the coroner said in his report.
“My office is closing our investigation of [a] missing person. We will not be commenting on any questions because other agencies are investigating,” he said.
Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate the disappearance as a missing person’s case.
Michael Gordon said he was put on leave after his son’s disappearance and then fired from the recycling plant about a week later for allegedly speaking publicly about the accident. He has two other sons still employed at the plant.
There is a possibility Alex Burrell Gordon might never be declared dead or seen again. Meanwhile, the family is in limbo.
Industrial Recovery and Recycling did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry about the investigation.
Alex Burrell Gordon lived with his father Michael Gordon, about five miles away from the plant.
“I’m so lost without him. We were together 24/7. He lived with me and now it’s hard. I go in his room all the time and talk to him and tell him I miss him,” said Michael Gordon.
“I just want my Alex back,” he said.