Fla. man digs through trash to find wife´s diamond ring
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By Jim Johnson | WRN senior reporter

Nov. 29 — Among the dirty diapers, rotten food and assorted trash, Brian McGuinn threw up. And then a miracle happened.

McGuinn screamed for joy in the sludge and muck that the trash and the Florida rain conspired to create on the tipping floor of Wheelabrator Technologies Inc.´s waste-to-energy plant in Pompano Beach, Fla.

That´s because amid nine tons of trash, diverted from incineration, McGuinn found the symbol of his love for his wife, Anna. In that waste, near the disposable razor he threw away the night before, was her $ 10,000 engagement ring.

But that´s not the end of the story. And there´s so much to tell: from the mishap in the couple´s condo in Margate, Fla., to the Waste Management Inc. drivers who picked up their garbage, to the Wheelabrator employees who helped create an improbable ending.

Horrible feeling

Brian McGuinn´s morning did not start well.

“I woke up to my wife frantically rummaging through her jewelry box and asking me where the ring was,” he remembered.

“I was terrified,” Anna said. “After looking in the box, I realized it was missing and after we scoured the house, we came to the realization that he must have thrown it away along with the disposable razor I handed him the night before.”

For five years, Anna had diligently protected the high-set diamond ring, worried that the stone could become dislodged and lost if she banged it against something. But that night, she had forgotten to take off the ring prior to getting into the shower, called her husband into the bathroom and asked him to place it in the jewelry box.

At the same time, she handed him a razor to throw away.

“I remember walking to the garbage and dumping out the razor, never going back to the jewelry box. So I knew at that point I had thrown it away,” Brian said.

“I was really horrified,” Anna said. “I looked at him and his face looked white as a ghost.

“At that point, we raced to the front door, out our front door and to our dumpster only to realize it had just been emptied, probably within minutes to us arriving. I figured it was hopeless. It was over. Of course, I cried and then I reminded myself that no one had died and get a grip. And I would cry again. It sort of came in waves and I just left for work.”

But on advice of her boss, Anna decided to throw a Hail Mary of sorts, contacting Waste Management to explain the situation. Luckily, the McGuinn´s condominium complex was the first stop on the route of Luis Novaton, who was driving that day, and Jean Baptist-Roosevelt, who was helping. There was plenty more trash to collect before these men would drop their load at the waste-to-energy plant.

“Within like an hour-and-a-half, I had received three phone calls,” Anna said. “The entire Wheelabrator company was, like, on it.”

´In the doghouse´

Wheelabrator, a subsidiary of Waste Management, has its North Broward plant located adjacent to the Monarch Hill landfill in Pompano Beach. It´s not a place for the faint of heart, according to Plant Manager Jim Epsilantis´ description.

The site burns 2,250 tons of trash per day, brought in on trucks just like the one that emptied the container at the couple´s complex that morning. There´s a tipping floor and then a pit that can hold 30,000 tons of trash to be fed to three boilers that produce enough electricity for about 50,000 homes.

Trucks dump their loads and it gets pushed into a pit. Once trash goes in there, there´s no way of safely getting it out, Epsilantis said.

No one goes in the pit.

But because the McGuinns alerted the company so quickly, there was time to inform the drivers that they potentially had a very valuable load. Once the truck arrived at the plant, the load was segregated. And once the McGuinns found out that there was still hope, Brian rushed to the site to begin the search. Anna, at five months pregnant with the couple´s first child, thought it would be best to stay away from the trash.

Joel Ryan, assistant utility operator at the Wheelabrator plant, set McGuinn up with protective equipment and escorted him to the pile of trash.

“I wished him the best of luck. Couldn´t promise him anything,” Ryan remembered.

Epsilantis has seen people come to his site before looking for valuables. More than half go home empty-handed, but some do succeed.

“I sure hope they find it, but deep down inside I have my doubts because the amount of garbage and the size of the items that they are looking for,” he said.

McGuinn, however, was on a mission.

“This poor guy was white as a ghost and he was definitely in the doghouse, so to speak. I can relate,” Epsilantis said.

Still, the plant manager said another family found a discarded wedding band and engagement ring a few months before at the North Broward site after days of searching, so he held out hope. And, coincidentally, another discarded diamond ring was recovered at Convanta Energy´s Haverhill, Mass., waste-to-energy plant in 10 tons of trash earlier this month, according to news reports.

But those stories didn´t make Brian´s task any easier.

“They showed me my section. I looked at it. It was a pile 10 feet high, about 30 yards long of just trash,” Brian said. “We´re talking used baby diapers, other sanitary items, rotten food. Rotten pumpkins because it was Halloween, so it was pretty filthy.

“For me, it was a sense of I had to make this right, come hell or high water. Whether I have to go through every piece of muck I have to, I need to get this ring back just because the memories were attached to it.”

And so he went to work. Not too long later, he actually found his trash bag.

“Sure enough, the ring was not there,” he said. “It must have fallen out.

“I happen to glance over to my periphery on my left side. And I see the razor on top of a bag. I ran over to it. I knew it was mine. à I felt I was getting close.”

Another glance down between two other bags and he saw what he first thought was a screw.

“When I reached down and put my finger on it, the top of the ring hit the top of my knuckle and I looked at it and let out the biggest scream — like I had won the lottery — in my life.”

Not long after, he was on the phone with is wife.

“I was at work. My jaw hit the ground,” she said. “After it set in and realized he truly found it, I screamed out loud.

“I was just absolutely overjoyed. I just feel it´s a combination of prayer and the overwhelming support and assistance that this Wheelabrator company provided. à It was my miracle, it truly was.”

Sludge-covered ring

From the time he arrived at the site to when he located the ring was less than 90 minutes, the couple estimated.

“There were some tough moments up there. I think when I first smelled the plant, I vomited, even with the mask on,” Brian said. “It was pretty raunchy up there. You´ve got to understand, I´m in the finance business. I sit in a nice office. And the closest I get to the trash is the one that´s on the other side of my desk. This is not something I´m used to doing.”

Epsilantis said it takes a certain type of person to be successful in all of that trash.

“It´s a rare occasion when they find it. And a lot of it has to do with the persistence of who´s looking for the item,” he said. “It´s the environment. Often, once they suit up and they get out there, they give up right away because it´s a garbage dump. It stinks. I was pretty amazed that he found it that fast.”

Waste Management Route Supervisor Adrian Moore acted as a liaison between the McGuinns and his crew.

“She called at a good time, I was able to catch him,” he said. “It just feels good to retrieve something with sentimental value.”

And those two Waste Management workers who were on the route also were joyful about their part in the story.

“I feel good because I do something great,” Novaton, the driver, said. “I feel almost [like] crying.”

“It´s was a good thing for us to be part of the adventure,” Baptist-Roosevelt added.

Brian, meanwhile, wasted no time in making the 20-minute trip to his wife´s office where she is an administrator at a medical office.

“I didn´t even clean off the ring. I just wanted to get that on her finger as fast as I could,” he said.

“He slipped that sludge-covered ring right on my finger and promised to never touch it again. I took it happily, sludge and all,” Anna said. n

Contact Waste & Recycling News senior reporter Jim Johnson at jpjohnson@crain.com or 937-964-1289.

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