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Published: Thursday, 2/17/2005

Simple rites honor 'Iron Angels'

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Workers and other offi cials stand atop a future I-280 on-ramp, gazing down on where the crane fell one year ago at 2:22 p.m.
Workers and other offi cials stand atop a future I-280 on-ramp, gazing down on where the crane fell one year ago at 2:22 p.m.
ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge

They came to the edge of I-280 in work boots and tennis shoes, hard hats and ball caps, armed with banners and flowers and hugs and tears.

And, for one minute yesterday afternoon, a crowd of more than 100 stood in silence against the interstate's fence line in East Toledo to remember the four men who died just across the highway's southbound lanes one year earlier trying to build a bridge that would reshape the city's skyline.

"They were all good guys," said Darla Wolfe, whose brother, Robert Lipinski, Jr., was among the victims.

On a similarly chilly Feb. 16, Mr. Lipinski and three fellow ironworkers - Arden Clark II, Mike Moreau, and Mike Phillips - died after their 2 million-pound horizontal crane collapsed from bridge piers as it was being repositioned. Four workers were injured.

Federal regulators would later blame the project's contractor, Fru-Con, for faulty anchoring, and a Blade investigation published Sunday showed that Fru-Con had early warnings about improper anchoring, and the firm lessened the amount of anchoring as the project continued.

The firm complained to the manufacturer that the crane wasn't designed properly to use on bridge curves. Yet Fru-Con didn't tell workers about its concerns, despite promises made in a special work-site agreement to share safety concerns with workers.

Family and friends of the workers gather near a makeshift memorial in Ravine Park II.
Family and friends of the workers gather near a makeshift memorial in Ravine Park II.
Enlarge

Anger over those findings remained at the memorial service, from the relatives of those killed to the mayor of Toledo.

"They say something this big always has accidents, so we know that there's certain risks involved. But when you're given notice of the risks .●.●. there is a duty to correct it and try to minimize it," Mayor Jack Ford said yesterday.

"When you've got, what appears to be human negligence in not responding, I think that's unconscionable," he said.

One year after the collapse, Toledo police are nearing a decision to hire an engineering expert to determine if anyone should be held criminally liable for the collapse.

But yesterday's makeshift ceremony was simply meant to halt the project and bring together family, friends, and co-workers for one minute.

With crews having blocked traffic on I-280, workers on the site took off their hard hats at 2:22 p.m. - the time of the collapse - and bowed their heads in silence.

Several dozen union workers and leaders, Fru-Con managers, and Ohio Department of Transportation managers stood atop the future Front Street on-ramp to the new bridge - beside where the crane toppled to the ground.

Below them, in the I-280 median where the crane fell, stood a dozen other workers, their heads bowed and hard hats in hand.

Just outside the highway, at a makeshift memorial site in Ravine Park II, stood more than 100 family, friends, and acquaintances of those killed and injured. Among them was Wally Roloff.

A retired ironworker who taught safety, Mr. Roloff said he cried when he first heard that the crane had collapsed because he knew what it likely meant. One year later, he felt the urge to come out and show his support to the families of those who didn't survive.

"I know all of the men and I know their dads. I just couldn't sit at home," said Mr. Roloff, who wore his old red hard hat for the occasion.

He shared a hug with Ms. Wolfe, who had left a poem in the fence that she'd written - "Iron Angel" - about her brother now building a bridge "out of faith, and hope, and love, connecting our hearts to the Father."

Farther down the fence line, Brenda Troje-Czebotar attached a banner with her own tribute to the "Iron Angels."

Mr. Phillips was married to Ms. Troje-Czebotar's twin sister, Linda. Ms. Troje-Czebotar said her sister was still grief-stricken, and she wants people to know how much she still misses and loves Mr. Phillips.

Ms. Troje-Czebotar has begun a petition campaign to rename the bridge from Veterans Glass City Skyway to Bridge of Iron Angels. But she said she knows it will be a tough, political fight.

As for Ms. Phillips, her sister said "she's worried about everybody else" working on the site, adding, "You don't know how many other lives could be lost, because of negligence."

Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre, who attended the event with Mayor Ford, said the department and the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office plan to hire an engineering expert in the coming days to help them decide whether someone can be held criminally liable for the collapse.

"We anticipate the defense would say that there could have been a dozen reasons it could have collapsed. We have to eliminate those," Chief Navarre said.

In the meantime, a special committee has been reviewing proposals for a permanent memorial to the men who died or were hurt on that clear, chilly Monday afternoon.

"We're open to everything. I've heard fountain, garden, statue, reflecting area," said committee co-chairman John Crandall, manager of operations at the Lucas County Engineer's Office.

The only clear decision is that such a memorial should be within the park that is to be created in the corridor now occupied by I-280 once the freeway soars overhead on the new bridge, Mr. Crandall said. But even within that area, he said, there are seven or eight potential sites.

Mr. Crandall said the committee wants to get an artist or team of artists involved before narrowing down the potential sites. He said public meetings about memorial concepts likely will be held late this spring, and the committee expects to be able to raise money in the several years it will take for a site to become available.

Blade staff writer David Patch contributed to this report.

Contact Joe Mahr at:

jmahr@theblade.com

or 419-724-6180.



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