Robert Goodenow and Duelle Block
3rd worker found dead after blast at Wisconsin corn mill
By TODD RICHMOND Published June 02, 2017
JOHNSON CREEK, Wis. – The body of a third worker was recovered Friday from the ruins of a corn mill that exploded in southern Wisconsin, and company executives insisted safety violations were corrected years ago.
The explosion occurred late Wednesday night at the Didion Milling Plant in Cambria, a rural village about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Madison. The blast leveled most of the plant.
Sixteen people were inside the plant at the time of the explosion. Eleven were taken to hospitals.
Didion Milling Plant executive Derrick Clark told reporters during a news conference Friday afternoon that emergency crews recovered packing machine operator Pawel Tordoff's body from the rubble earlier that morning.
Searchers recovered forklift driver Robert Goodenow's body in the debris Thursday evening and found mill operator Duelle Block dead shortly after the explosion.
"The loss of these three team members is a very emotional incident for us and has really torn a hole in the heart of the Didion Milling team and the Cambria community," Clark said.
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.
A fire broke out at the plant on Monday, but Clark said it was unrelated to the explosion. He said the cause of that fire is still undetermined but the company has a good idea of what caused it and it involved "a distinctly separate system" than what was involved in the explosion. He declined to elaborate.
U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration records show the plant was cited in 2011 for not taking precautions against dust explosions. They can occur when high concentrations of dust particles are suspended in the air in a confined space during grain handling. A spark from something like a cigarette butt ignites it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There were five grain dust explosions in the U.S. last year, including two that were fatal, according to a Purdue University annual report. Keeping facilities clean of dust and equipment in good working order to reduce the possibility of igniting the dust are key to preventing explosions, the report said.
The federal safety agency ordered the mill to correct the problem by April 2011, and the records show Didion paid a $3,465 fine and the case was closed in September 2013. Clark and James Brunker, a senior executive with M3 Insurance, which insures the company, said the problem was corrected.
Brunker called the violation "ancient history." The plant's insurance risk assessment has been improving since the violation, he said.
OSHA, the state fire marshal and the state Department of Justice are all investigating the explosion, Clark said. The company has also started its own probe of the blast, he said. He added that employees weren't allowed to smoke inside the building but he refused to speculate on other causes for the explosions besides dust ignition.
"It's just too early for us to comment on any potential sources," he said. "We're confidant the systems we have in place protect our workers."
Didion Milling employs more than 200 people at multiple facilities around southern Wisconsin. Most of them work at the Cambria corn mill plant, Clark said.
The company has closed until further notice, but Clark said Friday all the plant workers will keep their jobs. Some may be moved to other facilities or retrained to handle other duties, he said.
He expects production to resume at an ethanol plant adjacent to the corn mill soon, he added.
"(The explosion has) impacted our operations but that's the least of our worries," he said.
Brothers John and Dow Didion began Didion Milling in 1972. Construction on the Cambria corn mill was completed in 1991, according to the website. The company's corn products are used in brewing beer as well as in making chips, breakfast cereals, bathroom moldings, steel and ethanol.
The Didion Milling Plant in Cambria, Wisconsin that exploded late Wednesday night and killed at least 1 worker, was reprimanded by federal safety inspectors six years ago for not taking precautions against dust explosions, which are a major hazard in handling grain, records show.
The blast at the Didion Milling Plant in Cambria, a rural village about 45 miles (72.42 kilometers) northeast of Madison, left at least one person dead. Emergency workers were still searching for two employees as of Thursday afternoon. Nearly a dozen other employees were taken to area hospitals. None of the workers have been identified.
The cause of the blast remained unknown as of Thursday afternoon, Didion officials said. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators were on the scene.
"The safety and security of our employees is our top priority," Didion Vice President of Operations Derrick Clark said in a news release. "Over the past 44 years, the Didion team has grown to be a close-knit family, and we ask for your prayers during this difficult time."
The plant processes corn for ethanol and other uses. A review of online OSHA records shows the plant was cited in January 2011 for exposing its workers to dust explosion hazards. The records state that plant filters lacked an explosion protective system.
The agency ordered the mill to correct the problem by April 2011. The records show Didion paid a $3,465 fine and the case was closed in September 2013. OSHA hasn't cited the plant for anything since, the records show.
Dust explosions are a serious problem in handling grain, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. There were five grain dust explosions in the United States last year and two of the incidents resulted in fatalities, Purdue University said in an annual report. Keeping facilities clean of dust and equipment in good working order to reduce the possibility of igniting the dust are critical to preventing explosions, the report said.
Dust explosions can occur when high concentrations of dust particles are suspended in the air in a confined space during grain handling and a spark from something like a cigarette butt ignites it, according to the USDA's website.
Emails sent to several Didion officials Thursday and a voicemail left for Vice President of Sales Jeff Dillon weren't immediately returned. A note posted on the company's website said the company would be closed until further notice.
Nearly two dozen fire departments and four police departments responded.
Cambria Village President Glen Williams said the fire was contained by early Thursday and there were no evacuations in the area. Schools in the Cambria-Friesland district closed Thursday because of the incident.
The district houses early childhood through 12th grade in one building about an eighth of a mile from the plant, Superintendent Timothy Raymond said. School officials wanted to be sure the danger was over on Thursday, he said. Classes were set to resume on Friday.
The number of employees inside the building during the explosion fluctuated through the day Thursday.
Columbia County Sheriff Dennis Richards initially said 16 people were in the plant. Village of Cambria officials later said 17 were inside before revising the number back to 16.
In addition to the fatality, two other plant employees were treated and released. Eleven more were taken to area hospitals via ambulance and helicopter. Recovery crews were still searching a mountain of debris Thursday for the two missing workers.
Cambria is a community of about 770 people. Wiliams, the village president, said the plant is an economic anchor for the entire area. Raymond, the schools superintendent, said his district plans to have counselors on hand when students return Friday.
"Quite a few of the employees live in the village and surrounding area. So it's going to affect the whole area. Not just the shock of the event, but the economic hardship to the families," Williams said.
OSHA spokesman Scott Allen said personnel from the federal agency were on the scene Thursday to begin an investigation. The agency has six months to complete its work.
The company employs more than 200 people. It has offices and a soybean plant in Jefferson County to the southwest, the mill and an ethanol plant in Cambria and an oil packaging plant in Green Lake County to the north, according to the company website.
Brothers John and Dow Didion began Didion Milling in 1972 and construction on the Cambria corn mill was completed in 1991, according to the website. The company's corn products are used in brewing beer as well as in making chips, breakfast cereals, bathroom moldings, steel and ethanol.
A fourth worker died of his injuries Tuesday after an explosion destroyed a corn mill in southern Wisconsin last week, the company said.
Angel Reyes, 46, died at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Didion Milling said in a statement. Reyes was a pack operator at the plant and died from injuries he suffered in the explosion, the company said.
The blast and fire May 31 destroyed the corn milling plant in Cambria, a community about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Madison. The bodies of three other workers were recovered from the rubble. About a dozen of the 16 employees working the overnight shift were hurt. At least four remained hospitalized Tuesday.
A company executive said some employees have started returning to work at the mill complex.
The company's president, Riley Didion, told Cambria village board members Monday night that the neighboring ethanol plant, which was not damaged, will begin accepting loads of corn from farmers in the coming days.
Didion had no word on the conditions of the employees who were injured.
Village president Glen Williams said the ethanol plant is about 300 yards from what's left of the mill.
Cambria Fire Chief Cody Doucette said the rubble continues to smolder, but is contained by cement. The corn meal that continues to smolder will eventually burn out, Doucette said at the meeting.
Didion Milling employs more than 200 in facilities in Johnson Creek, Cambria and Markesan.