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Bittersweet moment

Construction accident looms over Miller Park opening

Mar 30, 2001 | CNN When Miller Park's signature roof rolls open for baseball fans on Opening Day, it will be the culmination of nearly 2.4 million worker hours spent building the massive, complex structure.

But the labor of 3,600 people who built the new home of the Milwaukee Brewers also is tinged with the memory of three who never saw the finished product.

Ironworkers Jerome Starr, 52, Jeffrey Wischer, 40, and William DeGrave, 39, were killed July 14, 1999, when a crane collapsed onto the partially built stadium while lifting a 450-ton roof piece. The accident delayed Miller Park's opening by a year.

Several workers watched the massive crane collapse but were helpless to stop it.

"It's been rough on everybody," said Brent Emons, union representative for Ironworkers Local 8. "I think everybody had the accident on their minds for a long time."

The Milwaukee Brewers are focusing on celebration rather than sadness for the ballpark's opening, said Laurel Prieb, vice president for corporate affairs.

But the accident left an indelible impression on the Brewers staff, Prieb said.

"From the day of the accident on, their memories will always be etched in our minds"' he said.

A fourth worker, plumber Arthur Margis, died of a heart attack at Miller Park three months before the crane collapse, Prieb said.

The team planned a moment of silence at an exhibition game before the April 6 opening to remember those who died, Prieb said.

A permanent memorial to all those who worked on Miller Park is planned for a plaza that's expected to be finished this summer, he said.

Jerome Starr's widow, Ramona Dulde-Starr, is not yet ready to discuss the tragedy publicly, said her attorney, David Lowe. Marjorie DeGrave and Patricia Wischer also have not spoken publicly about the accident.

Out of respect for those who died, workers did not have the traditional "topping off" ceremony, in which a fir tree is placed on the roof arches. The tree signifies that a job was completed without the loss of lives.

Last year, a jury awarded the ironworkers' widows $99.25 million in damages. Jurors found Mitsubishi, the ballpark construction project's roof subcontractor, 97 percent negligent in the accident.

Lampson International Ltd., which leased the crane and crew to Mitsubishi, also was found negligent but to a much lesser degree.

Four other Miller Park workers are suing Mitsubishi and Lampson for emotional and physical trauma they say they suffered when the crane known as Big Blue collapsed in heavy winds.

Attorney Frank Terschan said one of the workers, crane operator Joseph Edwards, 50, was working on Big Blue and talking to the men, who were in its man basket, by radio.

"When the last thing you hear is 'Get us out of here, get us out of here,' that kind of reverberates in your mind," Terschan said.

Still, Emons said workers are thrilled and proud to have been part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, including the complicated, challenging job of building the stadium's key feature -- its retractable roof.

"It was exciting and very rewarding as far as the pride and workmanship goes," Emons said. "I can remember old-timers talking about County Stadium. Now these guys can talk about Miller Park."

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