2007: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
3/1/2007
ASNE Staff
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Thursday, March 1, 2007
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting


Article list

Tragedy at Falk Corp. A hint of trouble, then tragedy 3 dead, 46 hurt as explosion rips buildings to pieces at Falk Corp.

By Greg J. Borowski
December 7, 2006

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.


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Gas leak suspected as cause of blast Police chief all but rules out criminal action

By Rick Romell
December 7, 2006

The cause of the deadly blast at the Falk Corp. remained under investigation late Wednesday, but signs point to an explosion of volatile propane gas.

Employees discovered a propane leak shortly before the explosion rocked the Menomonee Valley factory, killing three and injuring 46.

The leak may have allowed the gas to build up inside a warehouse, where enough propane may have accumulated to touch off a blast heard as far away as Franklin and large enough to be detected on the seismometer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Falk stored up to 612,000 gallons of liquefied propane, a report the company filed with Milwaukee County shows. Large storage tanks — which remain intact — stand near the explosion site on the southern edge of the Falk complex.

The company uses propane as a backup power supply for large water pumps in case of an electrical outage.

If propane was indeed involved, it wouldn’t be the first such explosion at Falk. In 1976, 12 employees were injured when a blast destroyed most of a small concrete building where liquid propane was vaporized into gas for use in the factory. The explosion occurred as a demonstration involving propane concluded.

A We Energies spokesman, meanwhile, said utility crews responding to the scene found no leak of natural gas, another potential explosion source.

Like any heavy manufacturing operation — Falk’s foundry and machine shops turn out large industrial gears — Falk has experienced accidents. But the company appears to have a good safety record, judging by available information from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the City of Milwaukee, comments from workers and observations of outside experts.

"They are always diligent here," said Steve Morrison, a 10-year Falk employee who was one building away from the blast site and escaped injury.

Evacuation helped

Workers aware of the propane leak had begun evacuating at least some areas of Falk’s 61-acre complex — an action Police Chief Nanette Hegerty credited with saving lives.

But one employee said some workers lingered after being told to leave.

David L. Mays, a 61-year-old machinist, said he was working inside the warehouse, known as the annex, when he and his co-workers smelled fumes. They left the building and called a supervisor. A few minutes later, they were told the gas had been shut off and everything would be OK, Mays said.

Exploding with the annex was a connected building used largely for maintenance.

Several government agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department, OSHA, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, are investigating the explosion.

Hegerty all but ruled out criminal action, saying the blast appears to have been an accident.

Earlier Wednesday, city and state-contracted inspectors said they were mystified as to the cause.

In a September visit to Falk, the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, which conducts annual fire inspections of commercial buildings in Milwaukee, found just two minor fire violations — one related to a door latch, the other to an exit sign, said Todd Weiler, department spokesman. Both were corrected within days, he said.

"When I talked to the inspector and asked, ‘How does Falk react to fire code violations and fire safety?’ he said, ‘Excellent,’ " Weiler said. He said the inspector was "mystified" by the explosion, in part because the propane tanks on the site appear to be intact and because no manufacturing occurs in the building that appears to be at the center of the blast.

"It’s a storage building with 3-foot aisles, pinions and boxes, and there’s rarely anyone in there," Weiler said. "There’s no open ignition."

Good inspection record

The department doesn’t conduct annual inspections on propane tanks, but rather checks installation and repair work, he said. The state contracts with a private company to inspect petroleum tanks, but that company also does not inspect propane tanks. The fuel-tank inspector, from Waukesha-based Independent Inspections, was at the site in February to conduct routine annual inspections of two fuel tanks and found no problems.

"It was absolutely clean," said Jim Hellen, operations manager. Falk has since then installed two more tanks: a 1,500-gallon diesel tank, and a 500-gallon unleaded fuel tank. Hellen’s firm was scheduled to return to inspect those in February.

The federal government has fined Falk three times — a total of $5,650 — for safety violations in the last five years, OSHA records indicate. Two violations were classified as not serious. The lone serious violation involved powered industrial trucks.

Falk’s record indicates "that they are not very careless with their employees," said Michael T. Coleman, co-chair of the manufacturing branch of the American Society of Safety Engineers. "Because I can tell you, OSHA writes everything they see."

James A. Rice, director of graduate studies in mechanical engineering at Marquette University, said Falk has an impressive safety record, especially considering the hazardous nature of its work.

"Any time you have molten material and the processes associated with it, you’re going to have dangerous situations," Rice said.

Coleman was impressed by media reports that earlier inspections at Falk had credited the company for keeping aisles 3 feet wide in the warehouse.

Government safety officials ruled two earlier fatalities at Falk as accidents.

They cleared the company in the 1991 death of employee Hugo Schulz, who was killed when a 1,000-pound clutch fell on him. In 1964, investigators blamed a metallurgical fault in a component manufactured by a Falk supplier for an accident in which one worker died and 11 were injured. In that incident, an 1,100-pound fragment of steel broke off a rapidly revolving machine, flew through the roof and soared over the East-West Freeway, landing more than three blocks away.


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Falk Corp. remains well positioned Tragedy may delay production, but business has been robust

By Rick Barrett
December 7, 2006

When the ambulances raced past Maynard Steel Casting Co. on their way to the accident scene at Falk Corp., it was a chilling sight for Bob Thill, Maynard’s president.

The companies are competitors, but the employees share a common affinity for the metal-casting industry.

"More than ever, we are concerned about the people involved. They are people like you and I, but they’re probably more like us," Thill said.

Falk makes gears, couplings, chains, bearings and other industrial components. Some of the company’s gears are among the largest in the world and are used in mining shovels made by P&H Mining Equipment Co., also of Milwaukee.

Falk’s business has been robust in recent months as the mining industry, especially, snaps up new equipment to keep pace with the global demand for copper, coal, oil and other mined commodities. Falk also has done well with products used in the agriculture, forest and cement products industries.

Milwaukee-based Rexnord Corp., which acquired Falk in 2005, recently reported a $376.4 million order backlog — up 22% from earlier this year.

Companies such as Falk that make the largest steel gears for mining machines are booked solid with orders for 18 months, said Raymond Monroe, executive vice president of the Steel Founders’ Society of America.

"Falk is a leader in technology, and it’s a leader in the industry," Monroe said. "How quickly they can come back from something like this will depend on the damages, but there aren’t other companies to pick up the slack."

Including Falk, Rexnord currently has 5,800 employees and 33 plants worldwide. The company is not publicly traded. In its second fiscal quarter, which ended Sept. 30, it reported $298 million in sales, up 9% from a year earlier.

"We are well-positioned as we start the second half of fiscal 2007," Bob Hitt, Rexnord’s CEO, said in a Nov. 8 statement.

Rexnord executives are confident that they can get beyond the tragedy at Falk, but it’s too early to say when production will resume, said Evan Zeppos, a Rexnord spokesman.

"Right now, the company is focused on the employees," Zeppos said. "Until we get through that part, and until we get into the buildings, we are not sure what this will mean in terms of orders and production. We will take care of the payroll, so people don’t have to worry about getting paid. But it’s quite possible that no one will report to work the next couple of days."

Should Falk’s production be stopped for very long, its customers might look elsewhere for large gears and other components made in the foundry and refined in the machine shops. But the large gears are time-intensive projects that take months to complete and are too heavy to be affordably shipped from overseas. So some customers might just have to wait for Falk to reopen.

The company has a unique niche in the steel-casting industry, said Al Spada, director of marketing for the American Foundry Society, based in Chicago.

"They are one of the large players in the large steel-casting segment," Spada said.

P&H Mining, which makes some of the world’s largest mining machines, has bought large gears from Falk for at least 20 years, said Neil Massey, P&H vice president of manufacturing operations. "That’s why we are concerned about their people first," Massey said.

P&H has some work in progress at Falk, but it’s too early to say how it will be affected. P&H has backup suppliers, should Falk not be able to fill its orders, Massey said.

"They are not our single source on anything," he said. "We don’t anticipate being shut down in any way, shape or form" because of the accident at Falk.

Bucyrus International Inc. of South Milwaukee also makes mining shovels. Recently, it has bought gears from Maynard Steel Casting.

"Our industry has been on a pretty big rebound," Thill said. "But it’s been a long, tough struggle. A lot of companies have gone out of business, and those still in business are certainly doing much better at this time."

Falk and Rexnord are two of Milwaukee’s oldest manufacturers, both more than 110 years old, and they were competitors for decades.

"In terms of continuous operations on one site, Falk might be in a class by themselves," said John Gurda, a local historian who wrote a book about the company.

Falk was started as a brewery in the 1850s by German immigrant Franz Falk.

"It’s a company that has shown remarkable continuity in what it does. They have been making gears since the early 1900s and are still the nation’s largest manufacturer of these very large, precision industrial gears," Gurda said.

Over the years, the Falk site has been inundated with floods. There are still places on the walls where you can see the high-water mark.

"They have had catastrophic floods that absolutely shut them down, but they have always bounced back," Gurda said.

"The world needs what they make," he said. "This is a company that has a machine on the shop floor big enough to produce gears that are 40 feet in diameter. That’s not something many companies can do."


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Shock waves radiate from blast site But serious damage seems limited

By Annysa Johnson And James B. Nelson
December 7, 2006

The blast that killed three workers and injured dozens in the Menomonee Valley on Wednesday could be felt as far away as Franklin and Oak Creek. Buildings shook, and plate glass windows were shattered a mile away.

But serious structural damage likely will be limited to the Falk Corp. property in the Menomonee Valley, said Todd Weiler, speaking for the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services, whose inspectors hit the streets looking for damage shortly after the blast.

"I’m not saying there won’t be damage, . . . there could be cracks," Weiler said. "But whatever energy there was, it did not appear to be enough to damage the structure" of buildings outside the Falk complex.

Damage or not, the blast rattled more than windows.

"I thought somebody dropped something on the roof," said Gary Bock, maintenance supervisor for Hatco Corp., 635 S. 28th St., not far from Falk.

At Hatco, windows were broken, light fixtures crashed to the floor and a large garage door was blown off its supports.

"The lag bolts that hold it in place were ripped right out of the wood," Bock said.

About 40 people who’d lined up outside the Mitchell Park Domes for Aurora Health Care’s ninth annual Senior Fair had to be turned away when a plate glass window in the lobby shattered. The Domes were closed for the day, and the senior fair was rescheduled for today.

At Potawatomi Bingo Casino in the valley, some patrons and employees said they felt it; others said they didn’t.

"People were saying they felt the whole upper level shake," said Robert Guschl of Saukville.

A little farther north, in Milwaukee’s Story Hill neighborhood, Matt Dodge of Muskego thought two trains had collided.

"We wondered, ‘What the hell was that?’ " said Dodge, 22, who was working with two others for Hoppe Tree Service when the explosion hit. "It was so loud. We saw the windows shaking on all of the homes around here."

The blast was felt below ground as well. Eddie Sparks of Super Excavators Inc. was 20 feet underground in a shaft at N. 26th St. and W. St. Paul Ave. with co-worker Ryan Czech when Sparks felt the concussion from the blast travel through his body.

"We thought our crane had tipped over or something," said Sparks, who is working on a project for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District about 1,000 yards away from the blast site.

Above ground, about a dozen businesses on W. National Ave. between S. 31st and S. 37th streets suffered broken windows and other damage during the blast, according to Helen Hermus, manager with the Silver City Main Street Program, which serves the business district.

"There’s glass everywhere," said Ald. Bob Donovan, who was walking the neighborhood, fielding calls from constituents and surveying damage.

Donovan said property owners with damage could contact his office and arrangements would be made for windows to be boarded up by the Department of Public Works.

"We’ll worry about who’s going to pay for it later," Donovan said.

The city will provide limited window repairs for homes and businesses damaged by the explosion, but it’s not free. Owners will be assessed $60 an hour for labor and $21 per sheet of plywood, according to Donovan.

Mark Glisson of Glisson Glass and Emergency Boarding Services was among the crews boarding up businesses along W. National Ave. on Wednesday.

Glisson was at his office on S. 1st St. when he heard the blast.

"The whole building shook," he said. "I thought a train had derailed. When I went out, all I could see was smoke."


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Family, friends recall loved ones Men killed in blast remembered as hardworking, dedicated

By Tom Kertscher And Amy Rinard
December 7, 2006

Shocked relatives of those killed in Wednesday’s explosion at Falk Corp. remembered their loved ones as hardworking employees who watched out for fellow workers and who were dedicated to their jobs and their families.

Daniel T. Kuster, 35, the youngest man killed in the explosion, was probably trying to help seal the propane gas leak that apparently led to the devastating blast, his uncle Tim Izydor said.

"He was most likely giving them a hand," Izydor said of his nephew, a second-generation Falk employee. "He was always that kind of guy. He always helped everybody."

Izydor, 46, of Mayville, said he became closer to the 35-year-old Kuster after his nephew moved to Mayville about two years ago.

He said Kuster grew up mostly in Greenfield and loved his job as a forklift operator. He said his nephew described the company as being strict about following safety codes.

Kuster’s father, Melvin Kuster, retired from Falk about two years ago after working there for about 40 years, Izydor said.

Melvin Kuster and his wife, Connie, now live in Oak Creek. Daniel was their only child.

Izydor said his nephew had never married and had no children. He said Kuster enjoyed camping and computers.

"He liked being by himself," Izydor said, "but when he did have good friends, he took care of them."

Curtis Lane, 38, worked at Falk for about 10 years in maintenance, friends said.

He and his wife of 11 years, Tina, also ran a day care center called Leap Into Learning in Oconomowoc.

The couple’s two children are Nicholas, who will be 4 in January, and Allyson, 2.

Lane was a lifelong resident of the Oconomowoc area.

Lisa Herzog, a friend of the couple who works at the day care center, said Tina Lane was with her parents, Bill and Betty Borgiasz, who live next door to the Lanes.

Tina Lane did not wish to speak with reporters Wednesday night, Herzog said.

"She can’t believe it; she’s shocked," said Herzog of Tina Lane’s reaction to news of her husband’s death.

Friends described Curtis Lane as a hardworking family man who was devoted to his children.

"His kids were everything," Herzog said.

Mitch Edwards, who had been a friend of Lane’s since they both attended Oconomowoc High School, graduating in 1987, said Lane not only held down a full-time job at Falk but also had nearly the equivalent of another full-time job doing maintenance at the couple’s day care center.

He said he was shocked at the news of his friend’s death. "It’s unbelievable, you can be on your way to work and not know what can happen to you," Edwards said.

Relatives of Thomas LeTendre, 49, of Milwaukee, who was also killed in the blast, declined comment.

A 1996 newspaper article described how for years LeTendre enjoyed running an old-fashioned concession stand at the Wisconsin State Fair with his parents and his seven siblings, selling items such as cotton candy, caramel apples and Sno-Kones.

"We grew up at the fair, and we couldn’t go through the summer without it," the article quotes him as saying.


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Doctor proud to help dad’s employer

By Joel Dresang
December 7, 2006

When the hospital called Wednesday morning, David Dorman was glad he could respond.

"I was listening to a TV set and it said ‘Falk Corporation.’ About a half hour later, I got the call from the emergency room: ‘Come right now! We’ve got a bad situation.’ I said, ‘I’ll be right over,’ " Dorman said.

A plastic surgeon in Brookfield, Dorman rushed to the Heart Hospital of Wisconsin, where one of the injured Falk employees was suffering from severe bleeding and facial lacerations.

Dorman said he spent about an hour and a half operating on the patient. In the adjacent operating room was a man who had lost some of his spleen.

"He’s all fixed up as well," said Dorman, who counted four Falk workers treated in the E.R.

"Everything went well," Dorman said. "The hospital had a tremendous trauma response to the whole thing."

But Dorman took extra pride in his emergency duty Wednesday because he considers himself part of the Falk corporate family.

Dorman’s father, Clifford, spent his entire career as a sales engineer at Falk, joining the company after his military service and retiring in 1982 because of failing eyesight. Dorman’s father and mother, Lassie, were so devoted to Falk that they organized monthly luncheons for Falk retirees at Alioto’s restaurant.

"They’re both deceased now. They ran that for many, many, many years," Dorman said.

Dorman himself worked at Falk during the summers while he was in college, scrubbing office floors, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping shops.

"It was a great place to work. People were very, very nice," Dorman said.

So, with that history, he was especially grateful to get the call Wednesday.

"I knew well the company they worked for because my father had worked there for his entire career, essentially, and of course me with the summer," Dorman said. "I felt kind of a kinship in that I was really almost complimented or pleased or proud to be able to help these employees in this terrible tragedy."


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Stories of shock, survival recounted

By Mark Johnson
December 7, 2006

People inside and outside the Falk Corp. complex talked about the explosion there Wednesday.

• Michael Kirkvold of Waukesha knew something had gone horribly awry when the floor shook violently, the ceiling collapsed and the lights went out in Shop 1 at Falk.

Kirkvold, 47, fell to the floor, hit his head on a table and injured his back. He got up, fought against the pain and hustled out with his colleagues. He dropped his cell phone on the way.

Meanwhile, his wife, Donna, was trying frantically to reach him.

She called his cell phone.

No answer.

Buses took Kirkvold and fellow workers to Miller Park, where the Red Cross brought them food. He noticed that other employees seemed confused and scared. Kirkvold, who started at Falk right after high school, finally reached his wife to say he was OK.

• Steve Morrison, a 10-year employee, said he was one building away from the blast site.

"I thought somebody dropped a bomb," said Morrison, a machinist. "Everything went out instantly. But the blast knocked me to the ground."

Morrison said he felt blessed to escape injury. "The hand of God was on me today," Morrison said.

• Adam Boehler, a 35-year veteran machine operator, and Morrison both said safety is a priority at the company. "They are always diligent here," Morrison said.

Boehler said the blast occurred near the north end of the building. Yet the force blew off the doors at the other end of the building. "We got knocked around pretty good," Boehler said.

• Michael Stewart saw a fellow Falk welder and hugged him at Miller Park.

"We lost you," Stewart said.

"I had to run," the co-worker replied.

Stewart, 51, was two buildings away from the one that exploded.

"Things just went kaboom-boom. It was loud. There was dust all over everything," he said.

Stewart thanks God he will live to see another day. He saw his car in the parking lot, intact. However, his keys were still in his locker.

He also wondered when he will be able to get back to work.

"If we have to be out of work, that’s not a good Christmas."

• Bill Gebhard, a utility set-up man who has worked at Falk 35 years, was working in a nearby building when the explosion occurred.

"It blew out all the windows," he said. "Glass was shattering all over the place. It threw me up in the air."

When Gebhard got his bearings, he realized he was looking outside; the building walls were gone.

• Jack Copet, a 31-year-old quality control analyst, had just merged from Miller Parkway onto eastbound I-94 on his morning commute to Brown Deer when he heard a deep ka-thunk so loud he thought something large had tipped over inside his trunk.

But he remembered the trunk of his 2000 Saturn was empty and thought maybe he’d been rear-ended. Then he looked to his right off the highway and saw a huge, dark plume of smoke.

"It was almost like when the twin towers came down," he said. "I could see timber floating, flying off like in the movies. I thought, man, that was some power. It was scary."

• Nanette Fox was on 27th St. near the Mitchell Park Domes when she heard the explosion and saw pedestrians jump. Car alarms went off up and down the street.

As Fox drove across the 27th St. Viaduct, ash and debris rained onto her car, and the thick smoke made it difficult to see the road ahead of her.

• Dave Mann, who lives on W. Clybourn Ave. in the Story Hill neighborhood, said his house shook from the blast.

"Things fell off the walls of our kitchen," Mann said, "and there’s black crap all over my cars out back."

From his house overlooking Miller Park and the Menomonee Valley, Mann could see smoke billowing high into the air. Although he’d heard crashes on the freeway before, he said the blast was unlike anything he’d heard in the 18 years he has lived in his house.

• Eddie Sparks, an employee of Super Excavators, said that at the time of the explosion he was working 20 feet underground in a shaft at N. 26th St. and W. St. Paul Ave. with co-worker Ryan Czech.

Sparks said he felt the concussion from the blast travel through his entire body. "We thought our crane had tipped over or something," he said.

When he emerged from the shaft, "I saw a big mushroom cloud over the 27th Street bridge"

Sparks said he was about 1,000 yards away from the blast site on a project for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

• Jon Gonzalez heard, felt, then saw "an incredible explosion" as he drove east on I-94 toward his office in downtown Milwaukee.

Gonzalez, an attorney, saw debris "shooting straight up into the air" and noticed the Falk smokestack in the distance.

"I was thinking back to those miserable memories of the World Trade Center," Gonzalez said.


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Chance was the difference for some Falk workers tell their stories

By Jesse Garza And Linda Spice
December 7, 2006

For Falk Corp. workers who survived the explosion that killed three of their comrades, Wednesday will be remembered for the violent jarring, chaos, raining debris and twists of fate.

Henry Carerros was in the plant’s Shop 4 at 8 a.m. drilling a "rush job" that should have been done the night before. The project took him away from his usual duties in the sub-assembly area, which suffered a more severe blow than the spot where he was working Wednesday morning.

"If I had of been there, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today," said Carerros, a 58-year-old machinist with 30 years of service at the company.

"I’m glad they didn’t finish it," he said.

A father of seven, Carerros suffered head, neck and back injuries when the ceiling caved in at the shop, next to the annex that exploded. He was treated at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center and released.

He walked from the emergency room with a white bandage wrapped around his head.

"I’m going to a bar, I am," he said, later spending the afternoon with his family at Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar in Wauwatosa.

He said doctors told him he was likely knocked unconscious. He recalls leaving the shop, walking over rubble and worrying about his eldest son, Sean Carerros, 28, who also works at Falk.

He remembered talking with "a big guy, asking him where my son was at. My son started walking toward me. He was looking for me," Henry Carerros said, his voice choked with emotion.

"He came over by me," he said of Sean, estimating that they met up about 30 minutes after the blast. "Then we went to the scale house, and they had people over there that were pretty hurt. I was still a little dazed, but I was glad to see him."

Sean Carerros was not hurt; he’s a first responder at the plant who helped tend to the injured.

Henry Carerros sat at home later Wednesday, taking phone calls, contemplating what had happened and worrying about co-workers.

"I don’t remember coming off the machine at all," he said. "I remember putting my hands over my head. I have cuts on my arm and bruises. The guy across from me, Gene, I’m really concerned. I don’t know what happened to him at all."

Optimism despite devastation

Falk machinist Robert Long was working in Shop 4 shortly before break time when "all of a sudden I heard a big noise. The building next to me blew up."

Long, a 46-year-old New Berlin resident and 15-year Falk employee, said metal, glass, wood and other debris rained down on him, severing a tendon in his right pinkie finger, which will require surgery. He said he helped a co-worker who suffered a leg injury leave the building.

Long said he noticed severe damage to his 2005 Buick LaCrosse. "The back end is no longer," he said.

Long predicted that Falk would recover quickly.

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

Long’s wife, Lois, didn’t know about the explosion when she got a call from her husband on her cell phone. She was getting therapy for her injured rotator cuff at a Waukesha clinic and accidentally hung up on him before he called back and gave her the news. She rushed to Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, where her husband was treated and released.

Feeling lucky

Falk forklift driver Otha Beamon was driving a Jeep about 20 feet outside of the annex building before the explosion.

"All of a sudden, boom! That was it," he said. "I’m lucky to be here."

Beamon said falling debris knocked him down twice after he got out of his Jeep and that "some guy came out of nowhere" and helped him get to safety.

Beamon, 56, of Milwaukee, was treated for a twisted ankle and other minor injuries at Aurora Sinai.

"God was with me this morning," he said.

Chaotic moments

A total of eight men were treated at St. Luke’s Medical Center, including Gary Kronenberg, 54, who has worked for Falk Corp. for about 35 years, said his brother, Alan Kronenberg, who stood late Wednesday morning outside of the emergency room doors.

Alan and his sister, Diane Kronenberg, came to the hospital to be with their brother, who was getting a CT scan for a head injury suffered in the blast. Alan had spoken to his brother, who is a machinist in the building next to the annex that exploded.

"He said they knew there was a propane leak and they were taking care of it," Alan Kronenberg said. "They thought it was taken care of. He was knocked off his feet and thrown three feet. He landed on his knees. The lights went out. The ceiling came down and plate glass came down on top of his head."

Thinking twice about returning

Jim Rauth, 57, joined Falk straight out of high school and planned to retire this year. But he said Wednesday that he is no longer sure about his future, or that of the company.

He was at the complex but not in the annex at the time of the explosion.

"We knew it was something abnormal," said Rauth, of Franklin. "It was plenty scary."

In nearly 40 years at the company, he has seen a few minor accidents, but "never anything like this," he said.

"We’ve had some minor things happen over the years," he said. "It’s just very different. These people are my friends."

Rauth joined his colleagues as authorities evacuated them to Miller Park. Soon after Rauth left the scene, he called his wife. His son called Rauth shortly afterward.

Rauth said he wasn’t sure when he would return to work.

"I’m supposed to retire at the end of the year — this is not a good thing," he said.


Article list

Tragedy at Falk Corp. 1964 accident still fresh in some minds

By Joel Dresang
December 7, 2006

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In August 1964, a large gear machine that Falk was testing shattered, launching an 1,100-pound piece of steel through the company’s roof.

The projectile bent steel girders, damaged other machinery, sailed over the freeway and landed more than three blocks away — in the 200 block of N. 31st St. — about four feet in front of two schoolgirls.

That explosion killed Floyd W. Hartman, a 38-year-old worker from rural Pewaukee.

Eleven people were injured, including Herman Pfannenstiel, 52, a worker who lost his hand and forearm.

Too hot to touch

The schoolgirls were showered with debris but otherwise unscathed, according to press reports at the time. A state safety investigator said that five hours afterward, the gear fragment was still too hot to touch.

Barry Seidel recalled the ’64 incident when he heard about the tragedy Wednesday at Falk.

"I just shook my head and said, ‘Oh no. They’re having trouble at Falk Corporation again,’ " Seidel said. Seidel, who is a surgeon in Minocqua, was a medical student at Marquette University in 1964. He even spent time in a hyperbaric chamber with Pfannenstiel as part of efforts to reattach his forearm.

"That was very early on in reimplantation studies," Seidel said.

Investigators ruled that the 1964 accident was caused by a metallurgical failure or fault in a steel forging supplied to Falk by another manufacturer.

Before the part broke off, the machine was spinning at an estimated 25,000 revolutions per minute.

Falk conducted its own additional investigation afterward and estimated damage to run more than $50,000, or more than $325,000 in today’s dollars.


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Tragedy at Falk Corp. Explosion Briefing

November 2, 2006

Blast picked up at UWM geosciences department

Although the blast didn’t shake the earth enough for the U.S. Geological Survey to take any notice, Brett Ketter, a seismometer technician at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the explosion at Falk Corp. on Wednesday morning was picked up by the instruments at the university’s geosciences department.

To put the reading into perspective, Ketter said it was smaller than such recorded impacts as the demolition of part of the Hoan Bridge six years ago and the demolition of a large part of County Stadium in early 2001.

Go to www.jsonline.com/links/Falk_blast to see the blast as shown on UWM’s instruments.

MMSD to inspect sewers for damage, toxic matter

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District will inspect a 1926 sewer that runs near the site of the Falk explosion as soon as possible to determine if the blast damaged the sewer, said Bill Graffin, a spokesman for the district.

Graffin said there is no indication of damage to the segment of deep tunnel that is about 300 feet below where the explosion occurred.

Graffin said the area near Falk Corp. is on a combined sewer system, meaning the firefighting water now puddled at the site ultimately should flow down sewer pipes and into the district’s treatment facilities. That water otherwise would be likely to head for the Menomonee River.

Graffin said a camera inspection of the near-surface sewer would likely be done today. He said crews were monitoring the sewers for toxic materials that could have been washed in during firefighting at the warehouse. The district is concerned that toxic sludge could damage the biological treatment portion of the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ officials, meanwhile, said the mess unleashed by the explosion does not appear to have caused immediate environmental harm to the river.

"Obviously, there is a huge tragedy, but not from an environmental standpoint," said John Melby, leader of the DNR’s air and waste management programs for southeastern Wisconsin.

Melby said there will be significant cleanup required at the Falk site, and nobody knows yet what type of wastes they will be dealing with.

Business continues at Potawatomi casino

Gamblers kept rolling in to the Potawatomi Bingo Casino on Wednesday morning, even after the blast at Falk Corp. about 25 blocks to the west.

Monica Perry wasn’t scared off by the explosion because she didn’t hear it while ensconced in the casino. She’d been there since 5 a.m.

"Nobody knew what happened until we looked up on the big-screen TV and heard the news," she said.

County buses transport uninjured workers

A dozen Milwaukee County Transit System buses were pressed into service Wednesday, shuttling uninjured Falk Corp. workers from the manufacturing plant to Miller Park.

"This is something we are asked to do on a smaller basis rather frequently," said Joe Caruso, a transit system spokesman. "We will convey neighbors or firefighters away from the scene of a fire, but I can’t remember doing anything of this magnitude."

Previous accidents with multiple victims

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration usually investigates about six fatal industrial accidents per year in southeastern Wisconsin, the agency’s area director, George Yoksas, told the Journal Sentinel in 2005.

Previous accidents with multiple victims include:

March 7, 1953: An oil vapor explosion at Ladish Co. in Cudahy killed three employees.

May 1, 1975: A chemical spill at the Spencer Leathers plant on S. 3rd St. killed two workers and made about two dozen others ill.

March 30, 1990: Two workers at A.O. Smith Corp. on Milwaukee’s north side were crushed to death by a tractor.

May 16, 1991: Three employees died after an explosion at the Bartolotta Fireworks Co. in Genesee.

Many of those injured released by afternoon

Of 46 people injured in the blast, 30 had been treated and released as of late Wednesday afternoon. A list by hospital:

Froedtert Hospital, Wauwatosa: Nine workers transported; three remained hospitalized, two in critical condition, the third in satisfactory condition.

Aurora Sinai Medical Center: 10 people seen. Seven released; the three that remained asked that no more details be released about their condition.

Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center: Seven of eight patients seen treated and released. The eighth was undergoing testing as of Wednesday evening, but the patient’s condition was not said to be serious.

Wisconsin Heart Hospital, Wauwatosa: Four patients hospitalized; two remained. One patient had plastic surgery to repair face lacerations; the other had surgery for internal injuries and bleeding and was in critical condition.

West Allis Memorial Hospital: Two people treated and released.

Columbia St. Mary’s: Four treated and released at the Milwaukee Campus on N. Lake Drive, as were two who were taken to the hospital’s Columbia Campus.


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Valley development likely unaffected Plenty of projects are moving ahead in and around the industrial center

By Tom Daykin
December 7, 2007

The explosion at Falk Corp. is not expected to hamper the continuing redevelopment of Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Falk itself is part of that effort. The company in March announced it would make improvements to its valley manufacturing complex, with the city providing $1.5 million in financial assistance.

Some of those improvements, near the Canal St. side of the complex, away from the blast, have been completed, said city Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux, who toured Falk’s operations with Mayor Tom Barrett just one day before the explosion. The blast destroyed one building at the Falk complex, which covers 61 acres between W. Canal St. and the Menomonee River, west of the 27th St. viaduct.

The blast also caused cracks, but no significant damage to Palermo Villa Inc.’s frozen pizza plant, at 3301 W. Canal St., just west of Falk, said Giacomo "Jack" Fallucca, company president. The 135,000-square-foot facility opened in August, making Palermo Villa the first company to locate in the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center.

Two other companies have announced plans to move to the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center, a 70-acre business park developed by the city Redevelopment Authority in the valley’s western end.

Valve maker Caleffi North America Inc. will begin building a 35,000-square-foot plant in spring and hopes to move by summer from Franklin Business Park, said Mark Olson, general manager. Badger Railing Inc. plans to build an 18,400-square-foot building and will move from 1611 W. Canal St. to make way for the Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s expansion.

Meanwhile, development firm Ziegler Bence recently started work on a 143,000-square-foot building at the former Milwaukee Stockyards site, 1201 W. Canal St. The firm will lease 56,000 square feet to Proven Direct Inc., a direct mail marketing firm that will move there from Menomonee Falls next fall, and is seeking tenants for the remaining space, said developer Todd Bence.

Finally, Harley-Davidson Inc. broke ground in June for its 130,000-square-foot museum complex in the valley’s eastern end, at W. Canal and S. 6th streets. The museum will open by the summer of 2008.

City officials and members of Menomonee Valley Partners, a non-profit group that promotes valley development, deserve credit for the continued projects, said commercial real estate broker Trent Poole, of CB Richard Ellis. The development pace increased with this year’s extension of Canal St., from N. 25th St. all the way west to Miller Park’s parking lots.

Poole said the valley remains a strong location for companies looking to build bigger industrial buildings close to I-94, municipal services and a large labor pool.

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