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Middletown Explosion: Workers Spent 80-Plus Hours A Week At Kleen Energy Plant

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Some workers building a Connecticut power plant shattered by a gas explosion had been spending more than 80 hours a week there before the blast killed five Sunday, The Associated Press has learned. One employee said workers smelled gas less than an hour beforehand and were told to open doors wider for air.

The son of one of those killed told the AP on Tuesday that his father told him the crew felt pressure to finish the Kleen Energy Plant.

Erik Dobratz, the son of pipefitter Ray Dobratz, said his father had told him he was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for six months.

"A lot of the guys on the job were doing this for six months, and they were exhausted," Dobratz said. "They were all exhausted. To me that just seems a little ridiculous. Eighty-five hours a week – accidents happen, if you ask me."

Dobratz said he wouldn't be surprised if the long hours turned out to be a factor in the explosion, which occurred as workers cleared natural-gas lines in a test.

"If something comes out that someone forgot to do something could it be because they were really tired and thought they did it and didn't do it," Dobratz said.

Paul Gaskins – who was working on a steam turbine at the time of the explosion and described a scene of chaos and disorientation after workers were hurled through the air – said Tuesday that he and his colleagues worked 12 to 13 hours every day but that they were not rushed.

He said workers had expressed concerns less than an hour earlier about a natural-gas smell in the building and were told only to open nearby doors a bit wider to let in more air.

The problem of purging gas has become serious enough that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents, voted last week to approve new safety recommendations for how it should be done. The federal agency has urged workers to vent gases outdoors and use detectors to monitor gas levels while purging gas lines. If that's not possible, all nonessential workers should leave the area.

Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the board, said it still can't say whether that's what happened in Middletown because they haven't had access to the site.

A spokesman for the contractor, O&G Industries Inc., would not comment. A message left at Keystone Construction, for which Dobratz worked, was not immediately returned. Messages were also left for union officials.

The state Department of Labor declined to comment on the long hours because of the investigation and Gov. M. Jodi Rell's call for a committee to investigate such issues.

The powerful explosion blew apart large swaths of the nearly completed 620-megawatt Kleen Energy Systems plant as workers for O&G purged a gas line Sunday morning. The cause is being investigated, and authorities launched a criminal investigation Monday, saying they couldn't rule out negligence.

Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said crews on Tuesday were removing more than 100 of the gas cylinders used for welding and pipe cutting. He said some might be damaged, but the building was metered constantly for any leaks.

During the pipe purging, local officials said, equipment such as welding machines and electricity should be shut off. Santostefano said he had no indication that a welding torch was left on at the time.

Robert Reardon, an attorney for a worker injured in the blast, also said workers were spending seven days a week on the project.

"They were told that they were in a rush to get it done because of the deadline that was imposed on them," Reardon said Tuesday.

Reardon represents Joseph Scovich, a Montville resident who was in a construction trailer at the time of the blast, was thrown against a wall and was knocked unconscious. Scovich suffered neck and back injuries. The trailer was knocked on its side and its windows blown out, he said.

In a quarterly report to the Connecticut Siting Council dated Jan. 15, a lawyer for Kleen Energy, said the construction project was ahead of schedule. While the commercial operation date was set for Nov. 30, 2010, attorney Lee D. Hoffman said that "it is currently estimated that the project will come on line in the summer of 2010" and that Kleen Energy had notified operators of the regional power grid.

Gaskins, who was less than 100 feet from the pipefitters, was working on a steam turbine when he was blown out the side of the building from the explosion's force. Gaskins, 49, of Holly Ridge, N.C., compared it to the sudden ferocity of a lightning strike or a wartime explosive.

"One minute you're standing there and the next you're in the air, all your friends are in the air, and all the equipment and stuff is in the air," he recalled Tuesday. "You're just trying to make it, trying to get small so the stuff flying in the air doesn't hit you."

Gaskins initially did not feel the concussion and injuries he suffered to his arms, neck, fingers and leg. As he started to stand up, he was struck by debris raining down from the upper part of the building.

In the moments afterward, he said, the most seriously injured people stayed on the ground, while others hurried to help them. Others tried to get away from the area, afraid of being hit by more falling debris.

Those who could walk tried to reach a central muster point to which they were told to go in emergencies – but the damage to the building made it tough to get a sense of where that point used to be.

"It was like you were in a war zone without guns; that's the best way to describe it. It was very quick and very deadly," he said. Though they were working long days, he said, employees did not feel rushed or stressed.

"We worked 12 to 13 hours a day, every day. There's no weekend; Sundays were just another day," he said. "Nobody was snapping the whip – it just a normal day. Nobody was in a rush, it was nothing like that."


Associated Press writers Stephanie Reitz and Susan Haigh in Hartford contributed to this report.

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