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Published: Monday, 8/8/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

E. Toledo woman dies in fall into recycling bin

Resident unable to free herself

Sheila Decoster, 62, was found Friday evening by her husband of 43 years, Robert. Sheila Decoster, 62, was found Friday evening by her husband of 43 years, Robert.

An East Toledo woman died after she fell head-first into her city-issued recycling container outside of her home, likely after going to throw trash away.

According to a preliminary report, Sheila Decoster, 62, died of positional asphyxia, meaning that, because of Mrs. Decoster's position in the container, she was not able to breathe properly, said Lucas County Deputy Coroner Diane Barnett.

In her 29 years in the coroner's office, Dr. Barnett said she has never seen anything quite like it.

Mrs. Decoster was found Friday evening by her husband of 43 years, Richard.

Mr. Decoster, who left for work about 3:30 a.m., returned home about 5 p.m. with a load of groceries. He didn't see his wife when he first walked in.

He assumed she might be next door visiting with a neighbor, and when he walked out the front door, he saw his wife's leg sticking out of the bin, which is next to the porch.

"I just happened to look to the left and, honestly, thought it was a dummy," Mr. Decoster said, pausing to breathe.

"I shook her leg and called her name, and I knew she was gone."

Mr. Decoster said he didn't notice his wife's slippers on the front porch, one near the bin and the other near the door, when he first walked in.

The couple put the two receptacles against the porch, with the wheels toward the curb, to make taking out the trash easier on Mrs. Decoster, who had back problems and, about eight months ago, had knee-replacement surgery.

Mrs. Decoster likely went outside to throw away a small bag of trash and, when she went to lift the lid, fell inside. Mr. Decoster said his wife had several medical issues that could have contributed, including dizzy spells and an aneurism on her brain.

Dr. Barnett said she has seen children die in similar ways -- in smaller five-gallon buckets -- but worries that the bins could be a safety hazard.

It appears that Mrs. Decoster tried to kick her way out of the 64-gallon receptacle, but was unsuccessful.

At the scene, once Mrs. Decoster's body was removed, Steve Kahle, a coroner's investigator, tried to tip the can but was unable to do so, Dr. Barnett said.

Mrs. Decoster's family said Monday that they were concerned because the can was difficult to tip over.

"Could I blame the city because the cans aren't tippable?" Mr. Decoster said. "I don't know. City liability hasn't crossed my mind."

The Decosters put the two city-issued receptacles against the porch of their East Toledo home, with the wheels toward the curb, to make taking out the trash easier. The city has no requirements on can placement. The Decosters put the two city-issued receptacles against the porch of their East Toledo home, with the wheels toward the curb, to make taking out the trash easier. The city has no requirements on can placement.
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City officials took numerous complaints when the containers were rolled out in late 2009 that they were oversized, clunky, and difficult for older or disabled residents to wheel to the curb.

In response, the city worked with the Ability Center of Greater Toledo to create the Solid Waste Accommodation Plan, which linked up older and disabled residents with neighborhood volunteers to ensure their containers were safely moved to the curb.

That effectively eliminated those complaints, and the city has not heard any other safety complaints.

"It's tragic, but I think it's definitely an extreme example," city spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said.

"We definitely encourage people to position their containers in a safe location around their house and to make sure they have appropriate safety precautions in place."

Ms. Sorgenfrei said city officials were still awaiting the coroner's report, but initial indications are the woman was standing on her porch, which had no railing, when she leaned over and fell head-first into the refuse container.

The city has no ordinance that requires residents to keep containers in any specific place.

Toledo City Council agreed to spend $9.67 million to purchase 180,000 of the containers -- two for every city household -- in 2009 as former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner led a push to automate trash collection. By default, residents received two 96-gallon containers. They could request smaller 64 or 48-gallon containers.

This year, the city has transferred the responsibility of trash collection to Lucas County, which has a contract with private-hauler Republic Services. The city sold its garbage trucks to Republic, but retains ownership of the trash bins. Ms. Sorgenfrei said that was because the city holds a warranty on the containers.

Ms. Sorgenfrei said the containers were purchased from a waste-collection company called Toter. A call to the company was not immediately returned Monday.

Dr. Barnett couldn't say how long Mrs. Decoster, who was still wearing pajamas, was in the recycling container before she was found, but she had been there for at least several hours.

Mr. Decoster tried to call his wife, a mother of three, during his lunch break about noon or 1 p.m., but didn't get an answer, which wasn't totally unusual, he said.

Jenny Fry, one of Mrs. Decoster's daughters, said the postal carrier would have walked right past Mrs. Decoster when the mail was delivered on Friday.

"Even though I've seen a lot of death, I can't open that can," said Mr. Decoster, who served in the Army Airborne division for three years, spending 13 months in Vietnam. "I need to put some recyclables in the can and I just can't do it.

"That's not me. I'm a strong person, strong-willed, but this is hitting me pretty hard," Mr. Decoster said.

Monday, Mr. Decoster's three daughters brought over poster boards they made for their mother's viewing and funeral to show their father. The three boards were covered with photos of Mrs. Decoster, a Toledo native who graduated from Waite High School.

There was also a picture of her first great-granddaughter, who was born Aug. 1. She was looking forward to meeting the new baby girl -- something that had been scheduled for Saturday.

"She had the biggest heart in the world," another daughter, Melissa Goeder said.

Her third daughter, Jodi Bates, added that their mother would make friends with just about anyone. If she ran into someone at the grocery store -- stranger or best friend -- she would make sure to say hello and, within two seconds, the person would know everything about her family.

She was proud.

"She was always fun-loving, always had kind words for everyone," Mr. Decoster said.

Staff writer Tyrel Linkhorn contributed to this report.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com or 419-724-6054.

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