Steelworker killed by molten metal never let dangerous job get him down

April 23, 1994|By Norris P. West and Joe Nawrozki | Norris P. West and Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writers

Wayne Thompson, by all accounts, was a happy man who labored hard for most of his life in a dirty, dangerous job and rarely let it get him down.

"He would say, 'Life's too short. Enjoy yourself. Don't be upset about silly things,' " recalled Al Tiller, a longtime friend who worked with Mr. Thompson at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point mill, where Mr. Thompson died in a river of molten metal Monday.

According to a source on the accident investigation team, Mr. Thompson was an hour into the morning shift, directing the operator of a huge crane carrying a 16-by-20 foot ladle full of

liquid pig iron from one furnace to another when the ladle came loose from its cables, spilling its red-hot load onto the floor below. Mr. Thompson, 55, saw the ladle drop and tried to run, but the molten metal caught up with him.

Mr. Tiller, who had just finished on the shift that ended at 7 a.m., heard the fire alarm.

"I left the locker room, and I went back over there," he recalled. "Somebody said to me, 'It's your buddy.' When they said, 'It's your buddy,' I knew it was Wayne Thompson."

Several other workers were injured, one seriously, and the spill caused a fire that took hours to bring under control.

Danger has always been part of the job for Sparrows Point steel workers, whose numbers have diminished from a high of 30,000 in the 1950s to about 5,800 today.

But for thousands of young black men like Mr. Thompson and Mr. Tiller, who had few other opportunities in the 1950s, a job at Beth Steel meant reasonably steady work and decent pay -- if they were willing to put up with occasional racial strife and insults.

Spread cheer

Mr. Tiller said his friend, an experienced equipment operator, trained him and helped him get accustomed to the job and the attitudes of co-workers when he began working in the shop where the hot metal was cooked.

"Wayne was the kind of guy that if you got angry with him, you wouldn't stay angry for long," said Mr. Tiller, 59.

Thurston M. Bartee, a former Beth Steel employee, said Mr. Thompson was a friend who would spread cheer whenever he gathered after work with friends at Goodie's tavern, near the plant.

"If you got a mug around here, looking all sad like something was wrong with you, he'd make you laugh," said Mr. Bartee.

Mr. Thompson grew up in West Baltimore and attended Douglass High. There, in 1957, he met his wife, Estalena. The couple married while they were in the 12th grade, but both graduated that year, Mrs. Thompson said.

Married 37 years

Mrs. Thompson laughs when she admits what attracted her to her husband of 37 years.

"It was his green eyes," she said, sitting in the living room of the Mount Holly Street home in West Baltimore that the family has occupied for 28 years, a room adorned with photographs of the couple's children and grandchildren. "It was also his personality. He had an outgoing, friendly personality."

She said her husband worked for her uncle, who owned the Russ Funeral Home, and did odd jobs before following in the footsteps of his father, who had also worked at Beth Steel.

It was a good job, she said, even with the layoffs, the prejudice and the dangers.

"The men working there knew it was a dangerous job," she said, and in later years her husband rarely talked about work. "After so many years, no, he didn't. You might talk about co-workers and things you do together, but not work per se. In later years he talked about death because so many of his friends were dying" from cancer caused by asbestos poisoning.

Mr. Thompson worked in the fiery heat of the huge basic oxygen furnace shop where iron was turned into steel, carried on its journey from furnace to furnace in a huge ladle, suspended from a crane by cables.

Workers dress for the job. Mr. Tiller wears thermal underwear and socks, even on warm days, along with heavy, steel-toed boots and thick, bulky thermal gloves.

Numerous burns

He also points to the numerous burn marks on both hands, then pulls off a shoe to show larger burns on his leg and foot.

"This is what happens when you get burned real bad," he said, trying to count the number of times bits and pieces of molten steel have singed his skin since he began working at Beth Steel in 1955. "I don't know how many times I've been burned."

Like his old friend, Mr. Tiller said he realizes that there's always a danger whenever he enters the work area. But he wonders how and why the cable snapped, sending the 2,900-degree pig iron into the work area.

A source involved in investigating the accident said the ladle carrying the pig iron also contained thousands of pounds of compressed used oil filters -- called "oil wafers" -- from which the dirty oil had been squeezed.

'More smoke than usual'

"The only difference we can see so far is that there was more smoke than usual," the source said.

"Our first conclusion is the crane operator shook or sloshed the ladle to further mix the pig iron and scrap metal when it came off the cables," he added.

He said the crane operator, who saw his fellow worker die, is under psychiatric care.

Besides his wife, Mr. Thompson is survived by three sons, Richard D. Thompson, Wayne G. Thompson Jr. and David R. Thompson, all of Baltimore; two sisters, Esther R. Thompson of Silver Spring and Cynthia Hines of Baltimore; a brother, Ronald Thompson of Baltimore; his stepfather, Charles Carter of Baltimore; and five grandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Providence Baptist Church. Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Russ Funeral Home.

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