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Injuries climb to nine in building collapse at old Bethlehem Steel plant

Nine workers were hospitalized Monday after the roof gave way on a building at the former steel mill in Sparrows Point, disrupting work on the lengthy dismantling of the Baltimore County industrial complex.

Four of those hurt suffered serious to critical injuries, authorities said, and state regulators were on the scene investigating what went wrong. All 13 workers in the building that once housed the cold mill at the time of the accident were able to get out, demolition contractor MCM Management Corp. said in a statement.

"MCM is focused on the recovery of its nine workers and asks the public to keep them and their families in their thoughts and prayers," the company said in a statement.

The accident took place about 10 a.m., drawing the interest of some who worked at Sparrows Point before it closed in 2012. At its height in the late 1950s, when it was Bethlehem Steel Corp., the plant employed more than 30,000.

"I rode down by the plant to see what I could see from the peninsula. When you work somewhere so long, there's still a piece of you still there," said Michael Lewis, who still has a position with the local Sparrows Point union. "It's sad. I hope everyone there makes a full recovery."

A worker who said he was on the site at the time described the collapse as "a domino-type of effect."

The worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job, said he rushed over to the area to find a man who appeared to have fallen from a piece of equipment dozens of feet in the air. He did not know the man but said his face was split open and bloodied.

"He had a hold of me, wouldn't let me go," the worker said.

Police eventually ordered the workers from the building. The worker said company officials told him that they would call when it was time to come back to work.

"You just got to do it. Just hope it doesn't happen again," he said. "It's just an unfortunate incident."

No work will take place on the site Tuesday, according to Gary Epstein, a spokesman for Hilco Global, which is clearing the property and liquidating the former plant.

The four most seriously injured were taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, while the others were taken to other area hospitals, a Fire Department spokesman said.

Most of the injured employees were doing well late Monday, Epstein said.

The cause of the collapse is under investigation by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health division of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said Maureen O'Connor, a spokeswoman for the department.

Hilco applied for and received a general demolition permit from Baltimore County, according to Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman. County officials hope the cleared land can be be redeveloped as a new economic engine for the region.

Kobler said the county does not supervise demolitions after it grants permits.

Del. John Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk Democrat, said he was seeking information on the collapse.

"We'll be doing all that we can to support [the workers] through the days ahead and hopefully to make sure that we don't see this kind of tragedy happen as we move forward," he said.

The state was notified on April 29 that asbestos removal would begin soon at the cold mill building, according to Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Apperson said MDE does periodic inspections of asbestos removal work and that two MDE inspectors were on their way to the site when the collapse occurred.

"When they arrived, they saw that asbestos-removal equipment was in place," he said, adding that "MDE is in communication with the owners of the site to ensure that any environmental or public safety issues related to the collapse are addressed."

In March, a controlled implosion of the Basic Oxygen Furnace shop building caused a loud boom, and the L blast furnace building — on top of which a Star of Bethlehem was lit annually around the holidays — is to be taken down in the summer.

MDE officials have cited Hilco on other issues, including illegal open dumping of industrial sludge, improper handling of hazardous materials and running an unlicensed scrap tire operation. Apperson said the state and the company are working on a settlement to resolve those concerns.

Shortly after the collapse, several former steelworkers gathered along the roadside to try to see what had happened until they were turned away from the property by security personnel and county police.

"I heard a boom. I am within earshot," said Paul Tollberg, who once worked at the mill and lives nearby

He watched with his wife from behind a chain-link fence as emergency responders worked around fire engines outside the imposing structure several hundred feet away.

"I was worried about them," Tolberg said of the demolition crews.

Lewis, the union official, said he is thankful Monday's collapes wasn't more serious.

"Looked like it could've been a lot worse," he said. "It's sad because the guys are down there just trying to make a living."

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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