The auction was inside the human resources building, in an auditorium packed last summer by anxious steelworkers looking for retraining, new health insurance and jobs. Wednesday's crowd was more optimistic — or at least very ready to plunk down money to get pieces of Sparrows Point.

Levy told everyone Hilco would be donating a dollar per lot, plus the amount of the winning bid on one of the forklifts, to Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, a Baltimore-based workforce training nonprofit. Then he warned the crowd that there were hundreds of lots to get through that day.

"Bid high, bid fast," he said.

First up: a walk-behind snowblower, appearing in full color on four screens around the room. That went for $450, with other snowblowers quickly selling for $425 and $275. Items came and went rapidly: a portable magnetic drill for $550, a pressfit tool for $375, a band saw for $150.

Levy pointed, gestured, urged and last-called. Some of the winners were there, and others — their disembodied voices coming through phone lines — were elsewhere. Hilco says the online crowd hailed from 10 countries.

Four or five years ago, many of Hilco Industrial's winning bidders were foreign and had their new purchases shipped out of the country, Wolf said. Now, as U.S. manufacturing picks up, the majority of buyers are domestic.

Maryland's manufacturing employment continued to fall last year. But Wolf said about half the people who registered to buy Sparrows Point equipment are regional, within a 150-mile radius of the plant.

Mike Wherry and Gary Trate, each of whom owns an equipment resale company in Pennsylvania, stood near the back of the room and shook their heads over the morning's bids. Too pricey for them. Take, for instance, a saw that sold for $300 — plus a buyer's premium of at least 15 percent and the state's sales tax — even though Wherry's sure you could get it new for $250.

"I want to ask the guy what he was thinking," said Wherry, of Sunset Industries.

The two men go to a lot of auctions. Trate, of Trate's Surplus, figures his count is at least 50 a year. Buyers who intend to use the equipment themselves can afford to bid more than resellers, and some newbies inevitably overpay, but Wherry and Trate bide their time and hope for good deals here and there.

Just before 6 p.m., as the auction was winding down, they called it a day and left empty-handed.

"Things were really going crazy," Wherry said.

He was a bit disappointed, but he wasn't sorry he made the trip. A friend who worked at a steel mill in Pennsylvania told him about Sparrows Point years ago, piquing his curiosity, and he wanted to get a glimpse.

"It was just worthwhile to see, to come down here and look and see what the place was like," Wherry said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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