Workers were 40 feet in air before Sparrows Point collapse

A crew of asbestos removal workers were operating equipment that had them more than 40 feet in the air when a former Bethlehem Steel Corp. building in Sparrows Point collapsed around them, according to a Baltimore County police report.

A day after the accident that sent several workers to area hospitals, police issued a preliminary report Tuesday indicating some workers may have been dismantling part of the building as others conducted asbestos removal in another area.

Officials for the companies working at the site declined to offer additional details of the incident, and state officials said a full investigation could take up to four months.

Thirteen people were inside the former cold mill building at the time of Monday morning's collapse. By the time authorities arrived, employees had pulled three workers from the building and Fire Department responders recovered another two, according to the police account. In total, nine workers were hurt.

Officials for MCM Management Corp., based in Michigan, said Tuesday that six of the nine had been released from area hospitals and three remained hospitalized —one in critical condition "but responding," the company said in a news release.

Those injured are men ranging in age from 20 to 56. Two are from Essex, and the others are from Georgia, Ohio and Michigan, according to the report.

John Hawthorne, 42, was among the men injured. His mother, Eleanor Burkett, said Hawthorne had been "pretty banged up. He's doing as well as can be expected. He fell 30 feet. The whole thing just caved in on everybody."

Burkett hasn't seen her son but talked to him by phone. He told her his chest and arms hurt, and he was on crutches for a leg injury. "He said 'Mom, I almost died,'" she said.

"I was real worried, praying he would be all right," Burkett said, noting that another son was injured years ago in a fall doing similar work. "They have to be careful when they go up there. It's not an easy job."

Hawthorne could not be reached for comment.

One employee who was not injured described the collapse as "a domino-type of effect" inside the massive building. The man, who asked not to be identified, citing fear of losing his job, said he reported to work Tuesday but was turned away and told to come back Wednesday.

"Everything stopped," he said of the work site. "They won't even let anyone from the company on that side" of the Sparrows Point property.

The workers are employed by demolition contractor MCM Management Corp., based in Michigan.

Another firm, the Illinois-based Hilco Global, is clearing the property and liquidating the former plant, which closed in 2012 but once employed more than 30,000 people at the southeastern Baltimore County mill.

Hilco officials did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

County officials, who hope to see the site renewed for economic development, had issued permits for the demolition. Maryland Department of the Environment officials said they've worked with Hilco on issues related to the site, including dumping of industrial sludge, improper handling of hazardous materials and unlicensed scrap tire disposal.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health is conducting the state's investigation. MOSH assistant commissioner Eric Uttenreither said the agency expects the review to take about four months.

Uttenreither said two inspectors went to the scene Monday and spent the day conducting employee interviews. He declined to offer details, but said inspectors generally tour the scene, take pictures and interview supervisors and workers — a process that can take several weeks.

Agency officials will review the case and decide whether to issue citations, Uttenreither said. He said while inspectors may find things the employer could have done differently, "a lot of times an employee made a mistake."

"A lot of times, accidents are accidents," Uttenreither said.

In MCM's statement Tuesday, officials said they were working with MOSH and county officials on the investigation, and asked the public to keep the injured workers in their prayers.

Company officials have not discussed what employees were doing at the time of the collapse, but the police report states one worker told them those injured were performing asbestos removal at one end while the other half of the building was being dismantled.

Terry Foy, president of Foy Safety Consulting in Abingdon, said Tuesday that it would be unusual for crews to be conducting heavy demolition at one end of a building while asbestos removal is going on at the other, though it could be possible, given the large size of the building.

"To do both at the same time is somewhat confusing to me," said Foy, who said his father worked at Sparrows Point for four decades. "The minute that building comes down, any asbestos is going to become airborne, which could cause exposure."

He said it would be considered safe to perform tasks preparing for demolition, such as removing wiring and piping to be sold as scrap metal. That's a common method for maximizing revenue from scrap sales and to shorten the length of a demolition job, Foy said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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