Speaking for the dead of Sparrows Point

September 17, 2013

Your article about Dundalk's memorial to steelworkers who died on the job separated The Sun from the pack ("Monument to Sparrows Point's casualties lives on at new home," Sept. 15).

How the relocation of a piece of granite became a story of community, work and commerce — and, yes, life and death — is literary alchemy. The truth of it all, though, is as hard and fast as the granite it starts with.

The account by Jamie Smith Hopkins is made even more engaging by the craftsmanship of the writing. Those interviewed express what we all feel in the face of death: "Those people should never be forgotten."

Your writer also makes clear the greater dimension of the tragedy — that the granite memorial is incomplete, and that legions who died are indeed forgotten.

First, there are no records of the dead prior to 1947 — and there are many. "In the early 1900s, the mill had a streetcar designated just for taking dead workers to the morgue." There is no inclusion of those who died from asbestos exposure at the mill.

This piece could easily have been another perfunctory acknowledgment of death. What's usually absent in such memorials — making them an empty nod to inevitability — is any insight into the how and why of the tragedy.

In fact, all these deaths were not inevitable. Mentioned deep into the article is that mortality rates decreased over the years, and that they dropped due to "safety efforts — which increased after workers' comp made accidents more costly." Along with a reference to union-led safety measures, it's clear that "inevitability" becomes less inevitable when pressure comes into play.

The article closes with the addition of another name to the memorial — Bob Jennings. After months of looking for work, the 59-year-old Mr. Jennings shot himself. There is voluminous, irrefutable actuarial evidence showing that suicide and other premature deaths spike in the aftermath of facility closings and lay-offs. Whenever you see political and business leaders and pundits refer to "tough decisions," this is what they mean — but don't have the guts to say.

Joe Lawrence

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