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Monument to Sparrows Point's casualties lives on at new home

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John A. Kinnaird backed his truck-mounted crane toward the monument that has stood at the side of Dundalk Avenue for two decades, a black-granite tribute "in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice."

The memorial recognizes workers killed in industrial accidents at the Sparrows Point steel mill — more than 100 in the past 65 years, and countless more before that. But now the mill itself is dead, shut down last year. The United Steelworkers Local 9477 union, whose hall stands directly behind the monument, is following suit.

The plant's former workers weren't about to let the monument become another casualty of the closure, torn off its foundation and carted away as junk.

"It's important that we maintain that monument," said Don Kellner, who heads the Sparrows Point retirees association and ran the local when it commissioned the memorial in 1993. "Those people should never be forgotten."

Last week the monument was, in fact, pulled off its foundation and carted off — to its new home.

Kinnaird and an employee, working alongside a two-man crew from the company that built the memorial, took the pieces apart and moved them three miles down the road to Dundalk Heritage Park. For Michael Lewis, who worked at the plant for nearly 34 years, the memorial's new lease on life is overshadowed by the mill closure that cost 2,100 jobs on site and more throughout the area. But he watched the move — which he helped coordinate — with satisfaction as well as sadness.

"I'm happy that we have found a place where we know it will be preserved, where it has an eternal meaning," said Lewis, a union official helping to wrap up the local's affairs. "The plant built the community of Dundalk."

When the Pennsylvania Steel Co. bought land on a Baltimore County peninsula in 1887 to build a steel mill, manufacturing was highly dangerous work — and steelmaking in particular. A 1907 magazine expose, "Making Steel and Killing Men," estimated that at least 1,200 people at a 10,000-job Chicago steel plant were killed or seriously injured every year.

"Steel is War," writer William Hard declared in that piece.

But the tide was starting to turn by then, said Mark Aldrich, professor emeritus of economics at Smith College and a former senior economist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Behemoth U.S. Steel, trying to improve a tarnished public image, started a safety committee to cut down on accidents. Most states passed workers' compensation laws in the 1910s, ensuring at least some payment for deaths and injuries rather than what employees and their survivors too often received: nothing. And the National Safety Council formed in 1913 as concerns about industrial dangers mounted.

The steel industry fatality rate dropped by two-thirds from the early 1910s to the late 1930s, according to Aldrich's calculations. The injury rate fell even further.

"The steel industry, among manufacturing industries, was and is comparatively dangerous work," he said. "It was then and is now, but obviously vastly, vastly less."

Safety efforts — which increased after workers' comp made accidents more costly — were part of that story. Safer equipment helped, too. So did turning over the most dangerous, brute-force jobs to machines.

Lewis, a former safety trainer at Sparrows Point, credits a safety program launched by the union and then-owner Bethlehem Steel in the 1990s for a 12-year stretch with no fatalities.

The streak came to an end in 2008 when ore on a conveyor belt broke a guardrail and a boulder-sized chunk flew off, driving a worker into a concrete wall, according to a state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation investigation. The next and final industrial fatality at the steel mill happened in 2010, when an employee fell from a steel coil carrier.

Lewis said no records were kept of Sparrows Point fatalities prior to about 1947, or else many, many more names would be engraved on the union's monument. In the early 1900s, the mill had a streetcar designated just for taking dead workers to the morgue, he said.

The monument also would have to be substantially larger if it included the names of workers who died not in industrial accidents but from diseases — such as lung cancer — after exposure to asbestos there, Kellner said.

To put Sparrows Point's hazards into perspective: Over the period of years during which 109 people were killed in industrial accidents there, 77 Baltimore City police officers died on the job.

Sparrows Point pay was good, and plenty of people were happy to take a job there, despite the risks. But even those who made it through without injury felt the hot breath of danger on their necks.

"Everybody's had a close call, one way or another, at the plant," Kellner said. "It wasn't a safe place to work in the early years. In the later years, we got better, but it certainly wasn't a utopia."

Baltimore-based Loeblein Memorials erected the monument in 1993, using a forklift and a crew that included employees Dave Brundick and Art Hellwig III. On Tuesday, both returned to take it apart with R.S. Kinnaird Memorials of Thurmont, which brought the crane.

They had to pull out two pine bushes to make space for the equipment. Then they slowly, carefully removed the "die" — the main part of the monument, which includes what was then the steelworkers' logo — from the base. All 3,200-or-so pounds of it.

The even-heavier base was next, leaving a forlorn-looking piece of concrete that had served as the foundation. The whole operation took about an hour in sweaty, 90-degree heat.

After that, they put it all back together at Heritage Park, about a block off Dundalk Avenue, on a foundation laid by the county.

Lewis, Steelworkers' Maryland subdistrict director Jim Strong and Loeblein owner Nelson Mathews watched as the die with its message about the ultimate sacrifice swung into place. Later, the crew would add the separate granite pieces with the names — all 110 of them, including two new ones.

One is Harry Skruch, a foreman killed in 1959 and left off when the granite was first engraved. The other is Bob Jennings, whose death — family and union leaders say — was linked inextricably to the plant's closure.

Jennings, 59, shot himself in January. He had spent months fruitlessly searching for a full-time job in a rough market for manufacturing workers and struggling to get funding approved for training.

"He symbolizes the death of the plant and what the death of the plant meant," Lewis said.

Jeanne Jennings, one of Bob Jennings' daughters, said the inclusion — connecting him to the 109 known industrial deaths — means a lot to her family.

"It brought tears to my eyes that they would do that for us," she said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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