Molten iron kills steel worker at Sparrows Point

April 20, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Glenn Small, Patrick Gilbert and Michael James contributed to this article.

A veteran steel worker was killed almost instantly yesterday when red-hot molten iron spilled on him at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant. Several other workers were injured, one seriously.

The accident caused a one-alarm fire at the basic oxygen furnace steelmaking shop that took several hours to bring under control, according to the Baltimore County Fire Department.

Separate state and management-union team investigations into the cause of the accident are under way.

The dead worker was Wayne G. Thompson Sr., 55, of the 300 block of Mount Holly St. in West Baltimore, said G. Ted Baldwin, company spokesman. Mr. Thompson had worked steel for 35 years, the spokesman said.

Mr. Baldwin would not discuss specific details about the accident or fully identify those injured physically or emotionally.

"Reports indicate that the ladle containing the iron dropped from the crane carrying it, resulting in the spill," Mr. Baldwin said in a one-page release.

County fire officials said the liquid iron spilled directly on Mr. Thompson.

Estalena Thompson, widow of the victim, said last night that the couple had been married for 37 years and had four children and five grandchildren. "He graduated from Douglass High School, waited a year and went to work at the Point," Mrs. Thompson said in a soft voice.

"He didn't talk much about the stuff he did or the danger, he was just pretty much steady. I knew of the other employees who got killed there in the mills. But after all these years, you just shut it out."

Mr. Thompson was pronounced dead at the plant's medical infirmary. Company officials would not discuss the victim's injuries or where he was when he was struck with the hot metal.

Kenneth O. Brown, 40, the most seriously injured of the other workers, was listed in good condition last night at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, a spokeswoman there said.

Ronald Schneider, a county Fire Department spokesman, said Mr. Brown suffered heat and smoke inhalation. The worker was treated in Shock Trauma's hyperbaric chamber which saturates the body with fresh oxygen.

Steel workers Louis Drumgool, 56, and Green Curbean Jr., 46, were treated at the infirmary for hand and shoulder injuries, Mr. Schneider said. At least 10 other workers were treated for stress-related problems, he said.

"I worked that part of the county for years with the fire department and those people at Beth Steel sometimes work together for 20, 30 years," Mr. Schneider said. "Something like this is very upsetting . . . they are like family."

Operations in the building where the fatality and fire occurred temporarily have been suspended, Mr. Baldwin said.

He said the building where the accident happened operates round-the-clock with rotating work shifts. Mr. Thompson, a furnace operator, was an hour into his shift when he was killed about 8 a.m.

Mr. Baldwin said the approximate 145 tons of molten pig iron, known as "hot metal," was in a rail car that resembles a submarine. It was coming from a blast furnace into the basic oxygen furnace steelmaking shop.

In the procedure, the car carrying the liquid iron -- which is heated to an estimated 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit -- is rotated, tilted and poured into a ladle about 16 feet tall. The ladle then is lifted by a 500-ton crane to a large third-floor container into which the liquid is poured.

At this point in the process yesterday, the ladle slipped from the control of the crane, which is operated by a worker in an enclosed platform high above the floor of the shop.

It could not be determined how far the liquid spilled.

Under normal conditions, the molten iron is poured into the container, where it is injected for several minutes with oxygen and assorted additives to make steel, the company spokesman said.

It is then dropped to a slab caster and formed into shaped steel, said Baltimore County Councilman Donald Mason, a former Bethlehem Steel employee who last Friday visited the plant where yesterday's accident occurred. "When hot metal spills, it's got no brains," Mr. Mason, a 7th District Democrat, said. "It goes where there's a free space. You get a globule of that on you . . . it'll burn a hole right through you."

Mr. Baldwin said the basic oxygen furnace steelmaking shop usually is the picture of efficiency.

Last year, he said, the shop produced about 3 million tons of steel.

Joseph Butler Jr., president of Local 2610 of the United Steelworkers of America, said yesterday a management-union safety team was investigating the accident.

He said he has requested a report on the details of the incident from Robert Allowatt, international representative for safety, a member of the joint safety team. Jeff Mikula is chairman of the union's safety team.

A team from Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, a state agency which under state law must be notified of a fatality on a job site within 48 hours, went to the sprawling steel plant yesterday and began an independent investigation.

Douglas Wallace, supervisor of operations for MOSH, said last night that Bethlehem officials notified his office shortly after the accident and have been cooperative.

The most recent previous fatal accident at the sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant property was Feb. 20 when a 51-year-old company electrician fell into the Patapsco River and drowned.

Robert J. Clinton had been installing temporary lighting at Pier 1 before he fell into the water. His body was not recovered until April 14.

Mr. Thompson's name will be added to a monument at the steel workers' union hall in Dundalk dedicated in November to workers killed in industrial accidents at Sparrows Point since 1951.

His name will be the 99th.

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