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Explosion at Milwaukee plant leaves 3 dead and 46 injured

A propane leak was found just before blast, company officials say.

December 07, 2006|Dave Wischnowsky | Chicago Tribune

MILWAUKEE — A propane gas leak led to an explosion Wednesday at a transmission parts plant, killing three people and injuring 46 others. But as investigators picked through the smoldering rubble, they could not discover what triggered the blast.

The morning rush-hour explosion at Falk Corp. leveled two factory buildings, knocked workers off their feet, broke windows in nearby houses and businesses, and scattered burning debris over several blocks. Concussions from the blast were felt miles away.

"I could feel the air pressure change and atomized glass going by me," said Mark Luzinski, a welder at a building on the 61-acre complex. "I saw the wall buckled in and all the doors -- 40-foot doors -- blown off their hinges."

Dozens of employees' cars were flipped and burned.

At a late-afternoon briefing, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who only the day before had visited the plant and praised the company as "a good corporate citizen," said everyone at the site had been accounted for after the explosion.

Officials at Falk said they discovered a propane leak about 8 a.m. near a 5,000-square-foot warehouse used to store transmission parts. They said they promptly ordered an evacuation, but not everyone got the word.

At 8:07, Michael Stewart had his welding helmet on when the blast occurred, about 100 yards away.

"All of a sudden I heard a big kaboom. It shook me, and I lifted my helmet up and it was pitch black. It got that dark that fast," Stewart said.

About 120 emergency personnel responded to the fire, which was put out in three hours.

Milwaukee Police Chief Nan Hegerty said authorities were still trying to determine the exact cause of the explosion. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent a team to investigate.

Of the 46 injured, one was listed in critical condition with head injuries.

Falk Corp. has deep roots in Milwaukee, dating to 1858, when it started as a brewery. The company, which began manufacturing gears in 1899, employs about 750 workers in the city.

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