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3 Connecticut blast victims mourned at funerals

The Kleen Energy plant is seen in this aerial photo after a deadly explosion in Middletown, Connecticut. (Jessica Hill)
February 14, 2010 10:17:28 AM PST
Erik Dobratz, whose father was among five workers killed in last week's Connecticut power plant explosion, remembers the day in eighth grade when his father showed up at a baseball game with an eye patch on. That was typical of Raymond Dobratz Jr., 58, a pipefitter from Old Saybrook who never missed his son's games, even when he was injured on the job. He'd show up for work, too, with broken fingers - even a broken ankle.

"He was the toughest guy I knew and the most caring guy I knew," Erik Dobratz said this week. "I only hope someday I'm half the man he is."

Funeral services were held Saturday for Dobratz and two other pipefitters, Peter C. Chepulis, 48, of Thomaston, and Ronald Crabb, 42, of Colchester, who died in the powerful explosion that devastated much of the nearly completed Kleen Energy Systems plant.

Also killed were Chris Walters, 48, of Florissant, Mo., and Roy Rushton of Hamilton, Ontario. Another 21 workers were injured, six with injuries requiring hospitalization.

The blast, heard and felt for miles, ripped apart the nearly completed 620-megawatt Kleen Energy Systems plant as workers for O&G Industries Inc. purged a gas line of air last Sunday morning.

Some of the 114 workers on site had complained of a heavy gas smell about an hour before the blast, but the cause hasn't been determined.

State and local investigators have interviewed survivors and sifted through debris for evidence; Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano says an investigation of possible criminal negligence is under way.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates serious chemical accidents, was initially denied access to the site. The agency's lead investigator, Don Holmstrom, has said he's concerned that evidence, including a camera and a combustible gas detector, has been removed.

The agency now says it hopes to reach a written agreement on access to the site and evidence. Another federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is expected to investigate as well.

Before the Connecticut blast, the CSB, which investigates serious chemical accidents, issued urgent safety recommendations earlier this month to change national fuel gas codes when gas pipes are being purged.

O&G has declined to comment beyond an earlier statement saying it was the general contractor on the project and a minority shareholder in the plant's ownership, but did not perform the majority of specialized work, including mechanical, electric and piping.

Subcontractors were "required to have and adhere to their own safety plan, as well as having a safety officer on site," according to the statement. O&G said safety personnel regularly inspected the site.

While some victims' relatives and blast survivors questioned safety standards at the plant and workers' long hours, other workers said the job was handled safely. The plant was scheduled to begin operation in June.

Dobratz said his father had told him he was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for six months. He said other workers were exhausted from putting in long hours.

But Peter "Ed" Reilly, president of the Greater Hartford New Britain Building and Construction Trades Council, said long hours are common in the business, especially near the end of a project.

He said union stewards and company officials monitor workers.

The Connecticut Pipefitters established a fund and building trades unions across the state are sending money to it to help the families of those killed, Reilly said.

Carl Crabb told the AP that his brother, Ron, and other workers smelled gas. While his co-workers were able to evacuate, Ron did not and was killed.

Crabb said his brother had earlier described the project as "screwed up," and that another worker, who was at the plant the day before the blast, called safety conditions "substandard."

Steamfitter Tom Alferi, 58, said electrical and welding cords were strewn about the site.

"It was a very messy place," Alferi said. "They didn't hire enough laborers. The safety on the job was substandard."


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