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Probe begins in Geneva death

Salem man is characterized as fair, hard worker

SHARE Probe begins in Geneva death

VINEYARD, Utah County — When Jerry Nelson arrived home each night after working a shift at Geneva Steel, he'd grab a bite to eat and head out to the family's welding shop behind his Salem home.

"He loved to work," said his son, Jerry Nelson, Jr. "He loved to fix things, and when he fixed them he fixed them right. He was a hard worker and he was a fair worker."

While his co-workers and family grieve, investigators have begun looking into what caused the industrial accident Thursday morning that killed the 28-year veteran maintenance worker at Geneva Steel.

Plant officials say Nelson, 56, was working inside a skip car, which carries iron-ore pellets to the top of blast furnace No. 2, when a 17-ton load of pellets was dumped on him from a scale car.

Co-workers used shovels, an industrial vacuum and even cut a hole in the car to free Nelson. The accident occurred about 8:45 a.m. and it took about an hour to reach Nelson's body. Once rescuers reached Nelson it was clear he had died, Orem Police Lt. Ned Jackson said.

"At some point it turned from a rescue operation into a recovery operation," Jackson said.

Investigators from the company, United Steelworkers Union Local 2701 and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the accident. Investigators are trying to determine why safety measures in place to prevent such an accident failed.

The skip car had been deactivated, normally triggering a gate that locks out the scale car. For some reason, the scale car was not locked out, and an operator dumped the scale car's load into the skip car where Nelson was working.

Investigators are mainly trying to determine if there was a mechanical failure or human error. A spokeswoman for the Salt Lake office of OSHA said investigators cannot comment on the investigation until it is complete, which could be several weeks.

Nelson, who had worked at Geneva since 1972, had recently retired from the National Guard after 21 years as a platoon sergeant. He was planning on retiring from Geneva in a couple years. Co-workers knew him as a quiet, private and dependable man.

"He hated a fuss being made over him for anything," his son said. "He didn't even like us making a big deal about his birthday."

Nelson is survived by his wife, one son and three daughters.

Steelworkers Union spokesman Kelly Hansen said he's unaware of prior accidents involving the skip car and scale car process. He said workers are familiar with the process and it's a long-standing part of the steelmaking industry.

"That's the way it's been done for as long as I can remember," he said.

Hansen said the union and company both stress safety, and most workers feel the plant is safe. However, workers recognize there are dangers associated with their jobs.

"There's always concerns about safety because of the industrial nature of our jobs," he said.

A co-worker of Nelson's who witnessed the accident was treated for shock Thursday at Timpanogos Regional Hospital. The company and union are providing counseling for other workers.

"We do all we can to help our members," Hansen said.

This is the third fatality at the plant since it reopened in 1988 as Geneva Steel. In 1994 an electrician working on a circuit breaker was electrocuted. In July 1997 another maintenance worker died when he was crushed between the cab of a crane and a steel rail.

In March of this year a worker was critically burned and four others injured when a furnace wall failed in one of the plant's basic oxygen furnaces and molten steel leaked into a water cooling jacket. The molten steel mixing with the water set off a series of explosions.

Geneva employs about 1,700 workers.

E-MAIL: jimr@desnews.com