Steel Mill Blast Kills Three Workers High-Pressure Tank Blamed; Mill Has History Of Violations

A high-pressure tank exploded at a steel mill Wednesday, killing three workers and hurling metal siding and other debris a quarter-mile away. Nine workers were injured, one seriously.

The cause of the blast at the Beta Steel Corp. plant wasn’t clear. Workers said a supervisor had been warned Monday that the tank had been leaking. The company also had a history of safety violations, according to state records.

“All of a sudden there was a huge explosion, like a time bomb,” said Lee Spitka, a supervisor at Beta Steel 30 miles southeast of Chicago. “People were just running all over the place. They were scattering because they didn’t know what was going to fall next.”

Kevin Myers, who was killed, had complained about the tank in a written report to a supervisor Monday, said a worker who asked not to be identified. Someone welded the tank Monday to keep it from leaking, workers said.

“We were worried about it, but they assured us it was safe,” one man said.

About 50 to 60 employees were in the mill at the time. But because of a shift change, most were not on the production floor.

The explosion ripped through a corner of the building, tore gaping holes in a three-story wall and hurled 10-by-15-foot sheets of metal siding into the parking lot.

Spitka said the explosion was in a basement tank that contained either water or hydraulic fluid under high pressure. The company would not say what blew up, only that it happened in or near the descaling accumulation tank, where water to clean hot-rolled steel is kept under high pressure.

Beta Vice President Grant Ruthizer said he had not heard of a complaint from Myers. He said the only complaints from Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration that he was aware of had been “very minor.”

However, Indiana OSHA records show 16 serious violations over the past three years and $18,400 in fines.

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