Walter Alecio heard metal grinding seconds before a tower of storage bins crashed through an animal-feed processing plant.
Alecio, the 36-year-old control room operator, was on the third floor of the International Nutrition plant when several outdoor storage bins — holding thousands of pounds of animal feed additives — toppled over Monday and crashed through the roof of the three-story building.
Alecio and two of his co-workers — Tomas Balderas and John Broderick — were pinned beneath the tower of bins.
The floor around them was collapsing. Debris and concrete blocked the exits.
“I thought, 'This is it — we are dead,' ” said Alecio, a father of three who has worked at the plant for 13 years. “There was no way to get out.”
Although he doesn't remember how, Alecio freed himself. He tugged at Balderas' hand, but the weight of the tower was too much.
“I knew they were in pain, but I had to leave them to get help,” Alecio said of his co-workers.
The crumbling floor shook violently as Alecio stumbled through debris and electrical wires, trying to reach a window no bigger than a car tire.
Dust and darkness engulfed him. He passed in and out of consciousness as he held his breath to prevent limestone dust from entering his lungs.
He managed to move enough debris to squeeze through the window.
A flooded staircase awaited him on the other side. Fire sprinklers had unloaded massive amounts of water in the stairwell, Alecio said.
On the way down, he encountered a couple of men running into the building to help the trapped and injured. Alecio told them it wasn't safe, so they turned back and left the rescue efforts to Omaha firefighters.
Alecio gasped for breath when he burst through the first-floor exit.
He quickly told firefighters where to place their ladder to rescue Balderas and Broderick.
Alecio then saw his good friend, Manuel Orellana, whose hands were burned badly. Orellana had been working on the plant's first floor.
Alecio said Orellana hopes to be released from the hospital in time for his wedding Saturday. He said Orellana jokes that he will sign his marriage license with his toes if he still isn't able to write with his hand.
Balderas, 37, was being treated at the Nebraska Medical Center for seven broken ribs and a punctured kidney, Alecio said.
Broderick, 53, broke his shoulder, had bruised ribs, a collapsed lung and hypothermia, said his ex-wife, Carisa Broderick. He is being treated at Creighton University Medical Center.
Doctors determined that Alecio's lungs were saturated with dust. He was released from Bergan Mercy Medical Center on Tuesday evening — making it home on his daughter's 10th birthday. Alecio said it could take weeks for his lungs to clear.
His wife, Erica, and daughters — ages 2, 10, and 12 — watched TV with him on the couch and brought him food and water.
“I am still very sore, but I am grateful to be alive,” Alecio said.
He reflected on co-workers David Ball, 47, and Keith Everett, 53, who died in the accident.
Alecio said he shared a passion for music with Ball, who worked in maintenance. Ball told Alecio that his favorite group was Christian rock band Building 429.
Everett, a janitor, was a jokester who always made sure there was a fresh pot of coffee brewing, Alecio said. Everett and Alecio frequently chatted about sports, fishing and hunting in the break room.
Former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren, now head of the Urban League of Nebraska, graduated with Everett from the former Omaha Technical High School in 1979.
Warren recalled his former classmate as an “exceptional football player” who played defensive end for Tech and was voted prom king.
World-Herald staff writer Maggie O'Brien contributed to this report.