Explosion at Beta Steel kills 1, injures 4

2010-01-08T00:15:00Z Explosion at Beta Steel kills 1, injures 4By Susan Erler -- susan.erler@nwi.com, (219) 933-4183 nwitimes.com

PORTAGE | An explosion Thursday in the Beta Steel plant's furnace area in Portage killed one man and injured four others, Portage Fire Chief Bill Lundy said.

The names of the dead and injured were not available Thursday night. All five are employees of Beta Steel, Lundy said.

The workers, three millwrights and two supervisors, were investigating a water leak in the furnace when the explosion occurred, said Kensey Alsman, president of International Longshoremen's Association 2038, which represents the nearly 250 unionized workers at the plant.

"Water got into the furnace and somehow got under the molten steel and caused the explosion," Alsman said. "Anytime you have water around hot molten steel, that's always dangerous."

There was no fire in the explosion, only steam, Lundy said.

The man who died likely was closer to the explosion than the other workers, Alsman said.

Two of the injured were taken to the Porter Portage Hospital Campus. One was taken to the Porter Valparaiso Hospital Campus, and one was taken to the Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary, Lundy said.

All of the workers were wearing protective gear, Alsman said.

Two were taken to the hospital with advanced life support, typically meaning they were seriously injured, Lundy said. Two required basic life support, with less serious injuries, he said.

The Portage Fire Department evacuated the plant and was continuing to secure it late Thursday.

Joe Gazarkiewicz, a spokesman for Beta Steel, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday night.

Beta Steel was the location of an explosion Nov. 14.

In that incident, slag erupted in the company's melting shop. Workers -- including four who were sent to hospitals -- suffered injuries such as blunt trauma and burns, Lundy said at the time.

The accident Thursday appears to be similar to the one in November, Alsman said.

"There's going to be a lot of investigation," Alsman said.

Alsman, who is a millwright at the plant, said he was on his way home from an earlier shift when the explosion occurred and he was called back.

"That would have been me up there investigating if it happened an hour earlier," he said.

Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman Sean Keefer said the agency no longer is investigating the November incident.

Keefer said at the time that IOSHA was satisfied "that Beta Steel had the proper safety protocols in place, and one of the employees veered away from these protocols during their shift leading to the accident."

In March 1996, three workers were killed and nine more injured when an explosion rocked the mill.

Beta Steel produces hot-rolled coil for steel service centers and tube and pipe manufacturers.

It has an electric arc furnace with a 700,000-ton annual production capacity and a 60-inch hot-strip rolling mill with a 1.1 million-ton annual production capacity.

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