JOHNSON CREEK, Wis. – The body of a third worker was found Friday in the ruins of a corn mill that exploded in southern Wisconsin, and company executives insisted that 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 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 had located the body of packing machine operator Pawel Tordoff earlier that morning.
Searchers recovered forklift driver Robert Goodenow's body 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 Safety and Health 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 important 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.
Clark said employees weren't allowed to smoke inside the building but he declined 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.
Goodenow's niece, 33-year-old Sarah Goodenow, said in a telephone interview that her uncle's death has left her devastated. She said she had an anxiety attack when she heard he was killed.
She said he wasn't married and had no children but was happy and always joked around at family gatherings.
"He was a hard worker," she said. "He spent a lot of time joking and with the kids."
Atttempts to reach Block and Tordoff's families were unsuccessful.
Gian Galassi, a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin Hospital, said five explosion victims were still at the hospital as of Friday afternoon. Four were in the burn unit. The fifth was in the hospital's trauma center. He declined to comment on any of their conditions.
Most of the patients admitted to the trauma center are critically ill or require aggressive medical help, according to the hospital's description of the center.
Another employee who was taken to Divine Savior Hospital in Portage had been released as of Friday evening, hospital spokeswoman Haley Gilman said.
Other employees were taken to a hospital in Beaver Dam. A voicemail left at the hospital inquiring about their condition Friday afternoon wasn't returned.
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.