Survivors of International Nutrition accident detail their frantic scramble to escape - Omaha.com
Published Monday, February 3, 2014 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:50 pm
Fleeing fire, debris and darkness
Survivors of International Nutrition accident detail their frantic scramble to escape
Benefit, memorial funds set for International Nutrition workers
A spaghetti feed benefiting International Nutrition employees is set for Feb. 9 at Ralston Arena.

The cost of the event, which will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., is $5. Raffle prizes and entertainment also will be offered. The arena is at 73rd and Q Streets.

The Jan. 20 fire and building collapse at the Omaha animal feed plant killed two people. Ten others were hospitalized.

Donations for workers are being accepted at Wells Fargo Bank branches. Memorial funds for David Ball and Keith Everett also have been established at the bank.

Great Western Bank has set up a memorial fund for Ball's family.

— Maggie O'Brien

It was a typical Monday morning at Omaha's International Nutrition plant, with workers sluggishly rolling in after the weekend and punching in for their predawn, 7 a.m. shift.

Coffee was huge on mornings like this. Keith Everett, the plant janitor known for his hearty laugh, could usually be counted on to make sure java was available in the second-floor break room.

As the main-floor production lines started up, Erik Ocampo, operator of the No. 1 line, had to wait. The co-worker who was supposed to stack the finished bags of Pro-Pep, a hog feed supplement produced by Ocampo's line, was running late.

About 10 minutes later, Leonardo came in, complaining of heavy traffic.

“Typical excuse, huh,'' Ocam­po said with an incredulous grin. They shared a laugh.

Like most of the workers at the livestock feed plant near 76th and I Streets in south-central Omaha, Ocampo liked his job.

The work could be monotonous and strenuous. And that Pro-Pep smelled horrible.

Still, it was good blue-­collar work that paid pretty well. And he liked the family-style environment in the small, 75-worker company. He had fun talking and joking around each day with his bosses and co-workers.

As the No. 1 line roared into action that morning, neither Ocampo nor any of his co-workers could have known that Jan. 20 would turn out to be anything but a typical day at International Nutrition.

Less than three hours later, the reinforced-concrete industrial plant would suddenly collapse around them into rubble. Ocampo would be knocked to the floor, praying to God as flames washed over his face and body.

On the mixing floor above, plant veterans John Broderick, Walter Alecio and Tomas Balderas would narrowly miss being crushed by a collapsing grain bin tower, becoming trapped in a tangle of shattered concrete and steel.

Friends Dustin Sheldon and Garrick Williamson would soon find themselves perched on a third-floor ledge, with loose slabs of concrete hanging perilously above them and fire raging nearby. Looking down to the ground 70 feet below, they would debate whether they should jump.

Everett and David Ball would perish amid the devastation of what had been the plant's second floor.

By the end, the tragedy would send 10 other co-workers to the hospital, including four seriously hurt.

But these weren't the only victims. The pain of the International Nutrition disaster won't soon be forgotten — by anyone at the plant that fateful morning, by their families or by the community surrounding the plant.

“The day I thought was going to be a good day,'' Ocampo recalled last week, still recovering from severe burns to his face and hands. “Just thinking about it still upsets me. No one deserved what happened.''

* * *

Three hours into the workday, the 38 employees toiling in International Nutrition's production plant had it humming, churning out tons of nutritional and medicated livestock feed, one 50-pound bag at a time.

The production process started on the ground level, where two “pickers'' gathered various kinds of raw product and sent them up the elevator to the third floor. There, other workers poured the ingredients into four massive mixers, which churned them into finished products.

Then the bulk animal feed dropped down to hoppers on the main production floor. On four main production lines, the feed was bagged, weighed and prepared for shipping.

The process was highly automated. As operator of the No. 1 line, Ocampo, a 20-year-old North High graduate who had been working at the plant for nearly a year, just needed to turn on the machine and make sure the bags were feeding in properly.

After bags were filled, weighed and dropped to a conveyor belt, Ocam­po made sure each was positioned correctly as it went through the sewing machine.

The sealed bags continued down the belt to the stacker, who lifted the heavy bags and piled them neatly on pallets. Forklift operators finished the process, grabbing each one-ton pallet and hauling it to an adjoining warehouse.

Given the late start, Ocampo kept his line running right through the regular 9:30 a.m. break. Finally, just before 10, he shut it down to clean away the dust that inevitably accumulated. His bosses always stressed keeping work areas clean, he said.

On the second floor, Sheldon and Williamson were carrying equipment into another production room to do some maintenance on a piece of machinery. On the mixing floor above, control room operator Alecio stepped away from his post to talk with co-workers Balderas and Broderick, a shift supervisor.

That's when workers throughout the plant heard an ominous rumble, the floor suddenly shuddering beneath their feet. Within moments, a massive concrete-and-steel tower holding bins containing tons of feed additives crashed through the roof.

The tower just missed Alecio, Broderick and Balderas, but suddenly the ceiling, walls and floor were giving way around them. All three became pinned in the wreckage.

On the production floor, Ocampo heard the strange roar and looked Leonardo in the eyes.

“Run!'' someone shouted.

Ocampo made it only two or three steps when the production floor plunged into darkness. Then something heavy thudded into his back, knocked him to the floor and pinned him down.

In an instant, fire flared in his face and ran down his body. He'd later speculate that airborne dust being kicked up in the collapse might have somehow ignited. There was nothing flammable in his work area.

Ocampo screamed and began flailing away at the flames, knocking off his Creighton Bluejays baseball cap, protective goggles and dust mask.

Then the son of a South Omaha pastor began to pray, silently pleading to God for his life.

“If it is Your will, take my life as it is,'' he thought. “If it is not Your will, get me out of this place.''

That's when, he would later recall, “the most beautiful thing happened.''

He suddenly felt no weight on his back, and the flames fell away.

He grabbed a metal railing and pulled himself up. In the darkness, dust and smoke, he could see nothing, but he heard the voices of co-workers shouting across the floor.

He followed the voices. And soon, through the smoke and din, he saw daylight coming in through an open garage door.

He was free. And he was alive.

In the building's center, Sheldon and Williamson found themselves trapped in a room amid pitch darkness.

Sheldon began calling out for his friend. Feeling around, Williamson got hold of Sheldon's shirt, and together the two felt their way toward the door. It wouldn't budge, completely blocked by debris.

In fact, they were lucky to be alive. The break room down the hall, which just a half-hour earlier had been filled with workers on their morning break, had been completely destroyed.

The two found a safety ladder and, one at a time, climbed up to the third floor. There they found more devastation, but also a window that opened to the outside.

They stood on an I-beam. Loose concrete hung above them. Not far away, a fire raged, sending off billows of black smoke.

Believing that the concrete over their heads couldn't hold, Sheldon wanted to jump. His friend talked him out of it.

But they agreed: If things did get worse, they were both jumping.

Elsewhere on the third floor, Broderick pulled his cellphone from his belt and sent a text to his girlfriend.

“Major accident. I'm hurt and trapped. Love you.''

Indeed, he, Alecio and Balderas were all trapped on the building's top floor. But at some point Alecio — he can't recall how — was able to work himself free. He attempted to free Balderas, too, pulling on his arm, but Balderas couldn't budge.

Alecio could see that both of his co-workers were in pain. He decided he needed to find a way out.

Holding his breath to keep the dust out of his lungs and feeling as if he were moving in and out of consciousness, he tripped his way through the debris and loose electrical wiring and went off in search of help.

He found a window about the size of a car tire and squeezed through. That led to a staircase that had a river of water flowing down.

Alecio followed the current, on the way encountering a pair of co-workers going up. Don't go any farther, he told them. It's not safe.

Reaching the first floor, Alecio hit an exit and gasped, filling his lungs with glorious, fresh, frigid air.

He found dozens of co-workers gathered outside.

One was Ocampo. His hands and face were blackened by fire, his skin peeling and blistered. His latex gloves were melted to his hands.

The pain was unbearable. As soon as Ocampo had hit the cold outside air, it felt as if someone had doused him with hot cooking oil.

A co-worker grabbed his arm, telling him to sit down. But Ocampo couldn't. The pain was so excruciating, he could barely breathe.

Another co-worker, a woman who worked in the quality assurance department, offered him a different kind of assurance. “You're going to be OK,'' she said calmly.

From that point, perhaps as shock set in, Ocampo's memories became only flashes.

A firefighter. Being loaded onto a gurney. Seeing the bright lights of an ambulance.

Indeed, Omaha firefighters at that moment were pouring all over International Nutrition.

Engine 30, responding from another call at 72nd and Mercy, was the first on the chaotic scene, minutes after the initial call to 911.

Acting Capt. Chris Hopkins quickly surveyed the scene. It was clear to him there had been a major structural collapse. Smoke rose from the back of the building.

A second alarm was called, with firefighters responding from four other stations.

Firefighters tended to the wounded, including burn victims Ocampo and Manuel Orellana, who had been operating the No. 2 line right next to Ocampo.

Making a 360 around the building, fire captains also spotted Sheldon and Williamson up on their third-floor perch. Though the two were at times shrouded in smoke, firefighters could see the fear on their faces.

Alecio and others told the rescuers there were others trapped inside.

Hopkins assembled a team. Armed with axes and pry bars, they strode into the devastated plant in search of the missing.

Climbing a flight of waterlogged stairs, they soon in the darkness came across a man trapped in the wreckage, facedown and pinned behind the legs by debris.

It's unclear whether the man was Broderick, Balderas or another worker who ended up pinned. Firefighters have not detailed how Broderick or Balderas ultimately escaped the rubble.

Firefighter Josh Jensen got down to talk to the man. Where are you hurt?

He complained of pain in his legs. Jensen checked to make sure he didn't have spinal injuries. Overall, he seemed stable.

As ice-cold water poured down on the firefighters and the victim from a broken water line, and with shattered reinforced concrete hanging dangerously overhead, Hopkins, Capt. Steve Crnkovich and Capt. Mike Giandinoto pulled away concrete, sheet metal and other rubble.

But the man remained pinned by heavy-duty steel shelving that the firefighters couldn't budge. They called for a saw.

Meanwhile, other firefighters brought a truck around and began extending a ladder to Sheldon and Williamson.

As the ladder neared them, Capt. Dustin Guzman called out: Don't climb on until the ladder is stable.

It didn't matter. The two relieved men lurched for the ladder as soon as it was within reach and scrambled down. For them, the ordeal was over.

Inside the plant, sparks flew as firefighters used a rotary saw to cut away the shelving. After slicing through, they pulled the remaining bars off the victim's legs and slid him out and onto a gurney. After 25 minutes of work, he was finally free.

That man would be the last taken out alive from International Nutrition.

Firefighters by then knew they were leaving two others behind. They had already found Everett and Ball within the second-floor rubble. Both were clearly dead.

* * *

Nearly two weeks after the International Nutrition collapse, federal and local investigators have yet to determine what happened.

The assumption of many outside experts is that a grain-dust explosion brought down the plant. But workers to a man say they heard no explosion before their workplace began crumbling around them.

Regardless of what caused the collapse, the fallout has continued.

Not only did the workers lose their plant, they lost their livelihood. On Friday, company owner Steven Silver announced that with the plant destroyed, he had to outsource the work to other facilities. That left him with no choice but to lay off his 25 production workers, he said.

Production workers were told in a meeting that all would receive severance packages, as well as help finding other work. When the plant is ultimately rebuilt, Silver hopes to rehire any available workers.

Broderick, Balderas, Orellana and Ocampo continue to recover from their injuries.

Even before being released from the hospital last week, Balderas filed suit against his former employer. His attorneys contend that unspecified company negligence caused the disaster that left Balderas with a collapsed lung and injuries to his spine, chest and head.

It appears not all International Nutrition workers bear hard feelings toward their employer.

John Broderick last week still suffered from a collapsed lung, broken ribs all along his left side and other internal injuries. But Carisa Broderick, his ex-wife, said Silver and the company had been there throughout the family's ordeal.

“They are wonderful,'' she said. “If they rebuild, I guarantee you, John will be the first one back through that door.''

Ocampo isn't sure what he will ultimately do. He bears no grudges, he said. But right now, he's focused on his recovery.

After he was rushed to the hospital that day, both he and Orellana were transferred to a Lincoln burn unit.

Given that Ocampo was working on a production line making swine feed, he sees the irony in the primary dressing his doctors laid over his raw, burned flesh to promote healing: pigskin.

He was released from the hospital after five days, just in time for his daughter Ruby's first birthday. As he recovered with his wife, Alison, and daughter in his northwest Omaha home last week, the pigskin still covered his hands, arms, chin, cheeks and ears.

Above all, he said, he and his co-workers feel for the loss of Everett and Ball. Ocampo's family waited four days to tell him what had happened to his co-workers, men he remembers as “cool guys.''

But he also feels lucky that he got out of the plant alive. Looking back, he's amazed the disaster didn't claim more lives.

“I easily could have been the third victim,'' he said. “There could have been a lot more deaths.''

World-Herald staff writers Maggie O'Brien and Alissa Skelton contributed to this report.

More coverage: International Nutrition accident

Photos: Accident at International Nutrition plant

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes

henry.cordes@owh.com    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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