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Published: Thursday, 7/8/2010

Investigation under way into fatal roof collapse at Fremont food plant

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FREMONT — An investigator from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was back Thursday at a local food processing plant where the roof collapsed Wednesday, killing one worker and injuring three others.

The federal agency is among those working to find out just what caused the fatal roof collapse at the Fremont Co., a long-standing, family-owned company that makes sauerkraut and bottles ketchup and barbecue sauce.

Nate Kern, 35, of Gibsonburg, an employee of Fremont-based B&W Welding, which was working at the plant, was killed, while two of his co-workers, Todd Michael and Mark Keckler were flown to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center. David Fisher, an employee of the Fremont Co., was treated at Fremont Memorial Hospital for minor injuries.

Jule Hovi, OSHA's area director, said three investigators were at the scene Wednesday and one returned today. They are looking at the circumstances involving both the Fremont Co. and B&W Welding.

"We don't limit the scope of our inspection," Ms. Hovi said. "We're going to be asking hundreds of questions to try to determine what were the employees involved in when it happened. If it happens to be welding or lifting or material handling, we can determine if any laws or regulations have been broken in that particular area."

Fremont Police Chief Tim Wiersma said the men were inside what's known as the cooking room working on columns that support the plant roof when a section of the concrete roof collapsed about 1:30 p.m.

Left, family and friends await news about the conditions of the victims, exchanging hugs and crying. An orthopedic surgeon was on hand as well if Todd Michael, who was trapped, needed his help. 
Right, Mr Michael is shielded from view as he is put in an air ambulance for a trip to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo. Left, family and friends await news about the conditions of the victims, exchanging hugs and crying. An orthopedic surgeon was on hand as well if Todd Michael, who was trapped, needed his help. Right, Mr Michael is shielded from view as he is put in an air ambulance for a trip to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo.
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During the four hours Mr. Michael was trapped, he remained conscious and helped coach emergency crews through his rescue.

Mr. Michael, 44, of Fremont was supervising a contract job on behalf of the family business, B&W Welding Inc., and was working with Mr. Kern.

Mr. Kern suffered injuries related to being crushed and was pronounced dead on the scene, Chief Tim Wiersma said.

Several area fire departments, including Toledo, responded to the collapse, as did the area's Regional Structural Collapse Response Unit.

Mr. Michael was trapped under chunks of concrete that landed on his legs, crushing them. As emergency crews struggled to free him from the remains of the partially collapsed roof, the rubble would shift "like a puzzle," Chief Wiersma said. All the time, Mr. Michael, who had studied the building closely before starting the job, offered solutions to his rescuers.

"He was actually saying how much the concrete weighed on top of him," Chief Wiersma said before the man was freed. "Not only is he battling, but he is being proactive in saving himself."

Mr. Michael was transferred on a stretcher from a Sandusky County EMS ambulance to an air ambulance as more than a dozen firefighters held up white sheets to shield him from media view about 5:35 p.m. Wednesday. He was listed in critical condition at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said.

Nate Kern, 35, of Gibsonburg, an employee of Fremont-based B&W Welding, was killed in the collapse. Nate Kern, 35, of Gibsonburg, an employee of Fremont-based B&W Welding, was killed in the collapse.
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No information on his condition was available Wednesday, but Fremont Fire Chief Dan DeVanna said his condition had been upgraded to serious. Mr. Keckler was in fair condition at St. Vincent's.

An orthopedic surgeon was on standby at the scene in case Mr. Michael required amputation, but that was not needed, Chief Wiersma said.

Mr. Michael and his three brothers operate B&W Welding, a company founded in 1963 that performs welding, crane services, trucking, fabrication, and "mending everything but broken hearts," according to the firm's Web site.

One former employee, Alexander Flores, 49, said at the scene that Mr. Michael was diligent about surveying a job site before he brought his staff to work and wasn't surprised his former supervisor could guess the weight of the roof.

"That's the way he is, he pretty much knew what he was doing all the time," Mr. Flores said. "I just hope he and his brothers are OK."

Family of both the men were on scene of the accident at the Fremont Co. Wednesday, receiving frequent updates from law enforcement and company officials, Chief Wiersma said. About 15 people, many crying and exchanging embraces, stood north of the plant in the more than 90-degree heat for hours near a waiting air ambulance.

One firefighter suffered minor heat exhaustion, and was treated and released from a local hospital, Chief Wiersma said.

The Fremont Co. employs about 300 people, and processes and sells sauerkraut and other foods. Company labels have included Frank's Totally Tomato Ketchup and Mississippi Barbecue Sauce, sold at Sam's Clubs and area restaurants, among other places.

The food processing facility was closed for general maintenance, so most of the work force was not present during the roof collapse, Fremont Mayor Terry M. Overmyer said.

The Fremont Co., founded 1905 as the Fremont Kraut Co. by Allen Slessman, is among the oldest businesses in town, Mr. Overmyer said. He added that there were no known defects to the building's roof.

"This is probably just a freak thing," Mr. Overmyer said.



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