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'Star of Bethlehem' lights up steel mill one final time

BankruptcyAuction ServiceBethlehem Steel

The five-pointed star, made of stainless steel and dozens of heavy-duty light bulbs, looks deceptively simple. Its symbolism is anything but.

Not long after Bethlehem Steel built the Sparrows Point steel mill's massive "L" blast furnace in 1978, workers erected the "Star of Bethlehem" at the top — a reference to the longtime owner as well as to the nativity. The star has shone from on high in December ever since, its meaning slowly transforming from an eye-catching example of the steel mill's might to something deeper and more emotional.

As the plant's hold on life grew more tenuous, the bright Christmas decoration represented hope. Hope that the furnace would go on producing molten iron, the mills it fed would keep making steel products and everyone's jobs would be safe, at least for a while longer, because turning the star on is no easy feat.

Now that hope is gone. The mill's last operator went bankrupt and the plant is being sold off in pieces. But the star remains, switched on by its owners for what steelworkers expect will be its final holiday season.

Dave Polanowski, a 17-year veteran of the steel mill and former union leader, said his roiling feelings of sadness and anger about the plant's closure do not extend to the star. He's glad, very glad, it was lit again.

"I know it's just a star, it's just a piece of metal with some light bulbs on it, but to a lot of us, that was our dignity, our pride — that was us," he said. "We were proud to see that star shine."

Sparrows Point was auctioned off in August as part of its then-owner's bankruptcy case to a liquidator and a redevelopment company. That might have been the end of the line right there — 125 years after its founder bought farmland to build a steelworks — except the new owners immediately put the property up for sale. Workers hoped against hope that an operator would step in.

Two weeks ago, the most valuable steelmaking asset at Sparrows Point was sold to a competitor, reportedly for spare parts. Local leaders declared the plant dead.

But in the days between, the star that workers assumed would remain dark flickered to life.

Polanowski said he went over to the plant in late November to ask if it could be done. He doesn't know if his request had anything to do with the ultimate result, but he's thrilled either way.

"It put some peace in your heart when we saw that lit," he said.

Illinois-based Hilco Trading, one of the owners, called the decision "the right thing to do."

"We felt it was important to continue to illuminate the Star of Bethlehem at Sparrows Point as a sign of respect for the great community and the rich history at the Mill as well as a symbol of hope for a bright future in this location in the years to come," wrote Gary Epstein, chief marketing officer for Hilco, in an email. "We believe this will be a new and economically viable community again."

John Moyer, 64, said he was in his early 30s when he helped install the star on what was then a new blast furnace. The decoration was attached more than 300 feet up, with either 179 or 189 bulbs — after all these years, he can't quite remember.

But he clearly recalls how happy he was to be assigned the job with more than a dozen others. He worked 16 hours straight on the project and was glad to do it.

"It was very, very exciting," said Moyer, who put in 38 years at the plant.

The star was the general manager's idea, he said.

"The furnace was supposed to be one of the biggest ones around at the time, and he wanted to put something up there that the people would see when they went by on the Beltway," he said.

Steelworkers insist you can see it from miles away, if you're in the right spot — Moyer said he used to be able to make it out from his home in Essex when he climbed to the top of a towering white pine in his yard. But it's not visible in many closer areas. Some people who live or work in the surrounding Edgemere community haven't even heard of it, let alone seen it.

The sure thing: Drive up to the plant on Route 151 at night. The property is largely pitch black these days, its buildings silent, its blast furnace cold. The star stands out in the darkness.

Don Krtanjek, a former maintenance manager at Sparrows Point, said his team "used to get all kinds of calls around Thanksgiving" — reminders to turn the star on. Just in case he'd forgotten.

It was no small effort. The furnace had to be shut down to allow electricians to go up to the top. Every year, they changed all of the bulbs.

"But it was worth it," Krtanjek said. "A lot of people liked it. They brought their kids down to see it."

Moyer brought everybody. Kids, grandkids, great-grandkids. He was that proud of it. He said he even built a star of his own, a copy of sorts for his then newborn son, and installed it atop a 70-foot pine in his front yard.

A few years ago, the tree died. He had to take it — and his star — down.

"Now the steel mill's closed," Moyer said, reflecting on the end of his employer and the looming end of the other, larger star. "It's heartbreaking."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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