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Railroad cars loaded with tons of iron ore pellets clank to a stop in the massive rotary dumper at Geneva Steel's sinter plant every few minutes.

The dumper operator in a nearby shack scans each load on a video monitor, then pulls a lever tilting the car until the marble-size iron shots spill out into a giant holding bin. The car rolls out of the building as another rolls in. Iron ore is the basic ingredient for making steel.It would be easy for a graveyard shift operator to put himself on autopilot, mechanically pulling levers like an assembly-line worker.

But Ron Maurin stayed sharp when he manned the post on a recent late October night. And a man's life was spared because of it.

Maurin, a 22-year veteran steelworker, noticed on the black and white video screen what he thought was a piece of plastic among the 100 tons of pellets. Debris isn't an unusual sight in the railroad cars, but Maurin kept his eye on the plastic anyway.

"I was just thinking it was garbage that would plug up the belts," he said.

Using the lever, Maurin rocked the car back and forth, shifting the pellets from side to side. He put the lever in the "dump" position and was about to let the load go when he saw something wiggling.

"It scared the heck out of me," Maurin said. With his heart pounding, Maurin, 44, frantically hollered through his two-way radio to a co-worker inside the building and bolted for the train car.

When he got there, a young man, maybe 19 or 20 years old, had crawled from a sleeping bag and was trying to climb out of the car, unaware that he came within seconds of a 100-ton iron ore grave.

Steelworkers figure the stowaway boarded the train somewhere between Geneva and Minnesota, where the load of iron ore originated. He burrowed into the pellets and apparently settled into a deep sleep.

"He was pretty cold and hungry. We gave him a taco and a cup of coffee," Maurin said.

Geneva security later escorted the man out of the steel mill. Because the man didn't speak much English, Maurin and his co-workers never did find exactly out how he came to be in the railroad car.

"His next stop would have been a slag ladle, I guess," Maurin said. "I still don't believe the guy knows how close he came to death. I think it scared me more than it did anyone else."

Glade Clayton, a sinter plant worker, said workers recently have found at least two other men hitching rides on the rails. They also once found a dog. A worker took it home for a pet.

Maurin, a quiet, modest man, doesn't think of himself as a hero. But his colleagues say he did something special. "Ron was just curious enough to check that," Clayton said.

Discovering a man among the pellets so spooked Maurin that he stopped railroad cars that night whenever anything out of the ordinary flashed across the video monitor.

"It was scaring me to death," he said. "It makes you wonder if there's been a few go through."