CO2 Leak Cited in Death of Smoky Mountain Opry Technician

by Stage Directions
Josh Ellis
Josh Ellis

A technician who had been hospitalized in a medically induced coma after losing consciousness during a March 3 show at Smoky Mountain Opry Theater in Pigeon Forge, TN has died. Josh Ellis, 38, was overcome by the lack of oxygen in an isolated room backstage that filled with CO2.

Two other workers had noticed that Ellis had missed a cue during the March 3 show, Feel the Music, and after entering the room where Ellis was working, both also lost consciousness from exposure to the clear, odorless gas. The two other crew members recovered after all three were rushed to the hospital.

Although the CO2 leak had been largely confined to the room backstage where the technicians worked, other crew members activated a fire alarm to alert everyone in the building, and the 900-member audience evacuated shortly after the problem was discovered, about three minutes before the end of the 8 p.m. show, including stage performers still in their costumes. No other injuries were reported.

Michael Headla, general manager, had noted an apparent malfunction in the way a CO2 atmospheric effect normally operates. He was quoted in local reports saying that there is a valve to the CO2 line that normally gets turned on for “just a brief moment,” but in this case, it stayed open and CO2 filled the room.

“We are all heartbroken by the tragic loss of our friend and co-worker, Josh Ellis,” noted Smoky Mountain Opry CEO David Fee, in a statement. “Our thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends and fellow employees during this difficult time.”

Smoky Mountain Opry, which resumed operations on March 4 after being confident that the problem with the CO2 valve had been addressed, opted to cancel all performances of Feel the Music through March 16 out of respect to Ellis’ family after his death was reported March 8. Tennessee’s state OSHA and others are investigating the incident.