WEST HAVEN — Euel Sims Jr. and Joe O’Donnell never stopped serving.
Sims, 60, and O’Donnell, 36, were killed in the explosion Friday at the West Haven Veteran’s Affairs medical center.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie named Sims, who retired after 21 years in the United States Navy Naval Construction Battalions, as one of the victims Tuesday.
“He was the example of what we all strive to be,” Wilkie said. “When he left the Navy, his desire was to continue to serve those who served.”
O’Donnell, a steamfitter, was named as a victim of the explosion in his obituary. Chief State Medical Examiner Dr. James R. Gill ruled the deaths of both men accidental.
O’Donnell was known as a gregarious and loyal friend.
“When I got out of the Navy in 2010, I came home and I wasn’t doing too well with adjusting back to the civilian life, so every Sunday Joe and I would go dirt biking and just hang out,” said friend Brian McCarley in a message. “He was the type of guy that always wanted to give and to help out.”
Sims, a native of Chicago and longtime resident of Connecticut, was working as a plumbing executive at the medical center at the time of his death. O’Donnell, a steamfitter for Mulvaney Mechanical, was hired as a contractor.
The explosion, which occurred during the replacement of a steam pipe, killed the two men and injured three others.
Wilkie, who was in West Haven Tuesday to tour the facility in the wake of the deadly explosion, said there is a joint federal and state investigation into the incident. He would not confirm any details, citing the ongoing investigation.
Wilkie, who was nominated to his post by Republican U.S. President Donald Trump, complimented Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, for his collaboration “in this very divisive time.”
“He has always been there for veterans,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie said that no patient was in danger and the system’s services never stopped.
Alfred Montoya Jr., director of the VA Connecticut health care system, said the system is a “family,” and only time will heal the wounds left by Sims’ death.
“The emotions are still raw, but we will move forward. And as soon as the investigation is complete we will also take that into account to make improvements,” he said.
Montoya said the hospital has an employee assistance program and a chaplain service for employees who are grieving.
Condolences poured in Tuesday for Sims, of Milford, who died doing what he loved — watching out for other veterans, his wife has told VA officials.
Several agencies are working together to investigate the accident.
Sims’ obituary states that he was a plumbing supervisor at the West Haven Veteran’s Affairs medical center.
Sims was married to Cynthia Petrie. He also leaves sons, Ian (Caitlin) and Eric; four grandchildren; and a new puppy, Coco, his obituary states. Sims was born in Chicago Heights, Ill. The obituary states: “Euel now rests in peace with his late Shih Tzu, Gizmo.”
“He will be greatly missed,” the obituary states.
All services for Sims will be private; in lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorial donations may be made to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at http://ASPCA.org, according to the obituary memorial.
O’Donnell’s friends set up a GoFundMe page after his death to help provide for his wife, Chrissy.
“To use the term ‘larger than life’ to describe Joey would be an understatement, as he had an immediate and powerful presence,” his obituary states.
According to the obituary, O’Donnell competed in track and field and wrestling in high school in Danbury and remained physically active throughout his life. He was a gifted fisherman and enjoyed enjoyed hunting, hiking, snowmobiling, motorcycle riding and quad riding.
“He was very skilled and admired by his co-workers for his competence and confidence. He had natural mechanical skills and worked concertedly to master his craft,” the obituary notes.
In addition to his wife, O’Donnell is survived by his father Joseph, his mother and stepfather, Cathy and Roger Redman, and his brother Timothy. He was predeceased by his brother Michael, his maternal grandparents Jean and Joseph Rosato and his paternal grandparents Joseph and Barbara O’Donnell.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Monday he would will push for federal funding to address aging VA facilities nationwide.
“I will urge a major commitment and investment” toward aging VA facilities, Blumenthal, who for years has advocated to address issues at the West Haven hospital, said Monday. “But obviously this one [in West Haven] will be at the very top of the list.”
Wilkie promised that “changes are coming soon” to the West Haven system’s infrastructure, but it is unlikely there will be a transition away from steam power.
“Most of the government runs on steam,” he said.
Fire Chief James O’Brien confirmed Monday the cause of the explosion remains under investigation.
The West Haven Police Department said in an email Tuesday that, “as of this moment no further media release will be sent by the WHPD in regards to this ongoing investigation. Our agency is working along with multiple other agencies in this investigation and will not comment further at this time.”
The department said the families did not want to speak to the media.
The VA building, which dates back to the 1950s, has a history of issues. Blumenthal last year ordered an inspection of the hospital after receiving whistleblower complaints.