By David J. Hill
While investigators continue looking into the cause of Tuesday’s deadly chemical explosion at the DuPont plant in the Town of Tonawanda, the Buffalo-based contractor that employed the two workers involved is mourning its worst accident in its century-long history.
The blast occurred at about 11:10 a.m. Tuesday, when workers with Mollenberg-Betz were performing maintenance on an empty 10,000 gallon storage tank located outside of the River Road facility.
One of the contractors, Rich Folaron, 57, was welding a bracket to the top of the tank when, for reasons still unknown, the top blew back, killing the South Wales, N.Y., resident instantly.
Co-worker Bill Freeburg, 50, was on the ground at the time of the explosion and suffered burns. He is expected to be released from Erie County Medical Center today, company officials said.
“It’s a very sad moment in our 100 years of business and I don’t think I’ll get over it forever,” Van Mollenberg, president of family-owned Mollenberg-Betz, told reporters Wednesday in a news conference outside the Scott Street business.
Representatives from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Buffalo office are looking into what triggered Tuesday’s deadly explosion. The tank had contained vinyl fluoride, a slurry the plant uses to produce Tedlar, a polyvinyl fluoride that can be used as a coating on solar panels, among other applications.
The tank was emptied and taken outside for the scheduled maintenance.
The two contractors both had plenty of experience, according to Jim Camarre, Mollenberg-Betz’s vice president of finance. “Neither of these guys are rookies,” he said Wednesday.
Folaron worked for the company for 15 years. A resident of South Wales, near East Aurora, he leaves behind a wife and four kids. “He was a great guy. Everybody liked him, everybody respected him. It’s just tragic,” Camarre said.
Freeburg, an Angola resident who has been with the company 25 years, is married and has one daughter. He suffered burns to his face but is expected to be released from ECMC’s burn treatment center today, Camarre said.
Company officials said Mollenberg-Betz takes safety seriously, and takes pride in its record. “Mollenberg-Betz has been in existence for over 100 years. This is the first fatality the company’s had,” Camarre said.
The company participates in the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program in which company officials work with OSHA and unions to prevent fatalities and injuries. The program involves work site analysis, training, and hazard prevention and control.
Employers have to apply for the program and undergo an on-site evaluation by safety and health professionals, according to OSHA. They are re-evaluated every three to five years.
Mollenberg-Betz attained Merit status in the OSHA program more than a year ago and is working toward the highest level, Star. “We spend a lot of money to do this, and it’s for our employees,” Camarre said. “We want them to go home at the end of the day instead of the hospital.”
DuPont officials released another statement Wednesday on the incident, expressing the company’s condolences to the Folaron family.
Maintenance work on the tank that exploded has been temporarily suspended to allow the incident investigation to take place, DuPont spokesman Terry Gooding said.
“The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is in the process of investigating the incident and we are cooperating fully,” he said. “We are also conducting our own internal investigation of the incident. Teams of experts will evaluate the cause of the incident and we will share the learnings from the investigation as appropriate.”