Saturday, December 09, 2006

Falk Corp. Building Explodes; Shakes City

I felt this while taking a test...

A hint of trouble, then tragedy

3 dead, 46 hurt as explosion rips buildings to pieces at Falk Corp.

As the first shift at Falk Corp. cranked along Wednesday morning, the troubling smell of gas drifted through an annex just off the main production building.

Workers called supervisors and began heading for the doors.

Moments later, at 8:07 a.m., a massive and deadly explosion ripped through the Menomonee Valley factory. It killed three, injured 46 and left a swath of one of the city's oldest companies a charred, smoking skeleton.

The three killed were identified as Curtis J. Lane, 38, Oconomowoc; Thomas M. Letendre, 49, Milwaukee; and Daniel T. Kuster, 35, Mayville.

Police Chief Nannette Hegerty said that had employees not discovered the propane leak and begun evacuating, "the death toll would have been much higher."

The death of Kuster, said his uncle, Tim Izydor, "kills my heart."

David Mays, a journeyman machinist, was working inside the annex when the gas smell first became apparent.

"I left," said Mays, 61, who has worked for Falk for 39 years. "But some of them stayed."

The explosion hurled Mays to the ground, reminding him of incoming mortar rounds from his service in Vietnam. It rattled windows and shook houses as far away as Franklin and New Berlin, and filled the gray morning sky near downtown with a chilling spiral of smoke.

The blast shattered the Falk family of workers, and ultimately tested a legion of police, firefighters, emergency personnel and hospital workers.

"We've all been there for over 20 years," said Mays, who later went to the hospital on his own. "We are all like a family."

Journeyman machinist David Sternig, 59, who has worked at Falk for 42 years, was in the southwestern part of the plant when the blast hit. Two of his brothers also work at Falk.

"It was like a bomb went off or a plane crashed," he said.

The light bulbs popped. The room went dark. The whir of machines came to a dead stop.

The room was eerily silent, and the air was filled with gray soot, Sternig said. Huge sections of concrete block were blown out. The annex was leveled.

Dean Sternig, 44, was on his way to see his brother when the blast knocked him from his feet like a bowling pin. Looking up from the shaking ground, he saw huge flames fill the sky.

"I didn't know if it was going to start to rain down on me or not, but I wasn't about to lie there and find out," he said.

He scrambled to his feet and ran into a nearby garage, diving on the ground into a pile of glass shards, cutting his arm in three places.

He got up again and worked his way back to his work station. The mood there was calm. No screaming or yelling.

Injured workers were transported in pairs. He was treated at a hospital and released. Neither of his two brothers was seriously injured.

"I feel real lucky," he said.

'There were people in there'

Falk is classic blue-collar Milwaukee. It is a place where life still runs on eight-hour shifts, where co-workers become friends who bowl together, play on the company softball team, trade deer hunting tales over a post-work beer.

To many people, though, the company passes without notice. Few likely could name its product: giant gears.

From the nearby highway and the viaducts that criss-cross the Menomonee Valley, the complex can fade into the mix of brick and smokestacks in the valley.

On Wednesday, Katie Porter was one of those passers-by, following her normal route from Wauwatosa down Canal St. to her job in the Historic Third Ward. Suddenly, her Saturn Ion was shoved off the side of the road.

"There was a truck or a van next to me, and I thought it had slammed into me," Porter said.

But the truck had come to a stop behind her.

"I saw the building explode outward and then just fall in," she said. "The walls were pushed outward, and the whole thing collapsed."

On S. 27th St., car alarms went off. In the nearby Merrill Park neighborhood, windows were broken and garage door bolts were shaken loose. Some thought it was an earthquake - others a sonic boom or an airplane crashing.

Jill Huffer was driving north across the 27th Street Viaduct, taking her two kids - Calvin, 9, and Casey, 5 - to Hawley Environmental School. It was not their normal route, but Calvin had an early morning appointment at the orthodontist.

"I saw debris flying way into the sky, and then I saw a flash and then a fire blast down on the ground," she said.

She kept driving, and found herself crying as she drove. Calvin asked what was wrong.

"I just kept thinking," Huffer said, "there were people in there."

In the valley below, forklift driver Otha Beamon, 56, was driving a Jeep about 20 feet outside the building.

"All of a sudden, 'Boom!' That was it," Beamon said.

He got out of the Jeep and was knocked down by falling debris. He got up, was knocked down again. Then, he said, "some guy came out of nowhere" and helped him get to safety.

In a nearby building, 35-year Falk employee Bill Gebhard was working when the blast tossed him into the air.

"Glass was shattering everywhere," he said.

Once he got his bearings, he realized he was looking outside; the building's walls had disappeared.

Sooty faces, shock

At the Engine 28 fire station about six blocks north of Falk, the entire building shook and the garage door sucked in, then blew outward - so much that the firefighters could see daylight. Some thought a car struck the station.

It had happened before.

They ran outside. No car. But James Youngblood, a driver for the department, saw smoke rising to the south. An engine and a paramedic unit were sent toward the smoke. South of the freeway they could tell the smoke was coming from a large building in the Falk complex.

They arrived about three minutes, 40 seconds after the blast to a scene of devastation about the size of two football fields. Lt. Frank Alioto, a firefighter for 23 years, called in a second alarm and requested extra paramedics and the department's heavy urban rescue team. Ultimately, it was a five-alarm emergency.

"There were people with blackened, sooty faces. Some bloody. They looked in shock. They were kind of wandering aimlessly," Alioto said.

Some workers were carrying out their Falk co-workers.

A triage site was set up to sort through the severity of injuries. Then the effort turned to fighting the fire.

Nearby businesses were pressed into service.

The Palermo's Pizza plant became a gathering place, with Falk workers signing in when they arrived so they could be accounted for.

While they waited for more direction, Palermo's workers served them pizza and coffee.

"It was pretty quiet," said Liz Bentzler, a quality auditor at the Palermo's plant. "Very surreal."

Falk workers were eventually loaded onto a dozen Milwaukee County Transit System buses and taken to nearby Miller Park. As they arrived at the stadium, some still looked shaken, and they walked in with the assistance of co-workers.

Later, worried families streamed into the stadium looking for loved ones, their faces stricken.

Dena Cahala beamed when she saw her husband, Glen, safe and talking on a cell phone. But her elation was tempered by her husband's fears for co-workers.

"I can't tell you how sad this is," said Glen Cahala, who was in the administrative building. "I just hope everyone is OK. I can't think about what this means for some families."

No foul play suspected

The building is part of a complex that covers 61 acres, with 1.5 million square feet of buildings. In all, there were about 600 people working at the complex at the time of the explosion. The building that exploded is actually two structures that are connected, said Evan Zeppos, who was handling public relations for Falk late Wednesday. One, called the Annex, was used for storage of component parts used in the manufacturing process. The other, known as the 2-2 building, was used largely as a maintenance facility.

For hours, it was unclear how many people had been in the building when the explosion occurred.

And whether everyone had gotten out.

Law enforcement officials ultimately interviewed some 500 workers and witnesses, trying to sort out the details of what had happened. Hegerty would later say the investigation would take at least a week, but that it "appeared to be a tragic, accidental situation."

No foul play. No crime.

Just tragedy.

Mayor Tom Barrett, who coincidentally had toured the plant the day before, called the blast a "serious tragedy for Falk, for (parent company) Rexnord, for the city of Milwaukee. And I would ask the citizens of Milwaukee to remember the families in their prayers."

Speaking at a news conference at Miller Park, he said investigators did not know how much time had elapsed between the time the propane leak was discovered and the blast.

Barrett said that the city conducted an inspection of the plant on Sept. 14 and found some safety violations.

"They were few and minor, and they were corrected," the mayor said.

Several employees said the plant was very safety conscious. There always seemed to be safety training and drills, they said.

Machinist Robert Long, 46, predicted a quick recovery for Falk, where he has worked for 15 years.

"It will be up and running before you think," Long said.

In briefings through the day, officials laid out what it took to manage the scene. About 125 Milwaukee firefighters were sent to the scene in 34 different vehicles. In addition, 52 Milwaukee police officers arrived, plus 25 detectives. The response also included a host of private ambulances, state and federal officials, and the American Red Cross.

City crews checked nearby bridges for structural damage but did not find any problems. Building inspectors also began visiting homes in nearby neighborhoods, where some windows had been shattered.

By 5 p.m., the search was complete. No one else was missing, although Falk set up a hotline, at (414) 643-2420, for its workers to call to get more information.

Two hours later, Falk employees gathered at Wisconsin State Fair Park. In a brief, emotional meeting, David Doerr, Falk Corp.'s president, assured workers they would be paid while the company regroups.

"They just told us to hang in there," said Michael Kleczka, a third-shift worker.

A day earlier, the meeting would have been a family reunion.

Wednesday night, it was a family in mourning.

LINK: A hint of trouble, then tragedy

It was strange that I felt something that killed people.

-Mr. Joseph

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