Man commits suicide as North Carolina Highway Patrol officers try to help

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Officers say when they stopped to check on the welfare of what they thought was a stranded motorist he killed himself. (WTVD)

Investigators said an explosive chemical was recovered from a car where a man threatened state troopers before killing himself Thursday morning.

Sampson County authorities said hazmat teams eventually recovered contained hydrogen sulfide from the vehicle Thursday afternoon.

Around 6:44 a.m., the North Carolina Highway Patrol said two Sampson County troopers approached a 2012 Subaru, which was parked in the middle of northbound Highway 701, about 9 miles south of Clinton.

The troopers wanted to do a wellness check on the person they believed to be a stranded motorist, authorities said. A man - later identified as 38-year-old Thomas Joseph Garner Jr. of Wilimington - was sitting alone in the passenger seat of the car.

Garner somehow threatened the troopers and referred to a "device" characterized by authorities as a cardboard box.

That threat made the troopers back up and call first responders, said authorities.

Robots used to deal with explosive devices were brought in, and Chopper 11 HD captured the rear right window of the car blown out just before 11 a.m.

Sometime between the wellness check and late morning, Garner died.

"At some point it appears he did expire in the vehicle," said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a NCSHP spokesman. "But as far as was it contributed to the device, I don't know that yet."

Authorities said an autopsy would have to determined how Garner died.

By 1 p.m., Garner's body and the device remained in the car as the SBI bomb squad and local hazmat teams assisted with the investigation.

"We're not going to send our people into a scene that we don't know what's going on, [and] if it's harmful situation," said Capt. Eric Pope, a spokesman with the Sampson County Sheriff's Office, the lead investigating agency. "We want to render it safe before we get all these resources into place."

"It's an unfortunate situation that you still have a body that's still there," said Pope. "However due to having to enter the scene safely it is necessary to do that and I hope everyone understands that."

By 2:30 p.m., investigators had Garner's body from the car, but 701 S remained closed as authorities worked the scene.

An hour later Pope said hydrogen sulfide, an explosive gas, had been contained in the car. Pope could not say how much of the chemical was recovered, how many containers it was in, if it was tied to the cardboard box, or its intended use.

The chemical is a poisonous, colorless gas that can carry the scent of rotten eggs.

"According to the hazardous material team, it's extremely lethal... when in a contained space, yes," said Pope.

By 4:30 p.m., the car had been towed from the scene, and the highway re-opened.

In the early morning hours, three people from two homes along 701 S were evacuated. The rest of the rural county residents had already left for work, said Pope.

"We didn't hear anything, except the fact that there was no traffic," said one unidentified resident who had to be evacuated around 7:00 a.m.

Several agencies from the state, Sampson County and Fayetteville assisted with the investigation.

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