Latest New Houston's Lyondell Crane Collapse

Government trying to figure out why massive crane fell

July 20, 2008, 3:25 pm

Workers who died hailed by family, friends as 'best of best' By LINDSAY WISE and TOM FOWLER Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

• John D. Henry, 33, of Dayton, Texas • Daniel "DJ" Lee Johnson, 30, of Dayton • Marion "Scooter" Hubert Odom III, 41, of Highlands, Texas • Rocky Dale Strength, 30, of Santa Fe, Texas

As federal investigators began the painstaking process Saturday of determining why one of the world's largest cranes crashed down on workers at a Houston refinery, stunned friends and family mourned the dead and waited for answers.

Four men were killed and seven injured at the LyondellBasell refinery near the Ship Channel when the towering crane toppled over about 1:20 p.m. Friday. One worker remains hospitalized with a non-life-threatening injury.

The men who died all worked for Deep South Crane & Rigging of Baton Rouge, which built the crane. They were identified Saturday as Marion "Scooter" Hubert Odom III, 41, of the Highlands; John D. Henry, 33, of Dayton; Daniel "DJ" Lee Johnson, 30, of Dayton; and Rocky Dale Strength, 30, of Santa Fe.

Co-workers and loved ones described the men as "the best of the best" — consummate professionals who considered their work with the massive equipment the "Super Bowl" of crane operations.

Loss deeply felt

Odom operated the crane, a 30-story behemoth capable of lifting 1 million pounds. Friends remember him as a joker who charmed everyone he met by chatting them up in a syrupy Southern drawl.

"His country hick accent kicked all of us into laughter all the time," his friend Terri Wallsley said. "All his back-country sayings were something else." "He could make anybody laugh," agreed his friend Ricky Finley. "And if you needed help, he'd do anything for you."

Finley's brother, Greg Finley, was Odom's best friend. Together, the siblings considered themselves his surrogate family, since most of Odom's relatives lived hundreds of miles away. Several of them were en route to the Houston area Saturday from Mississippi.

The Finley brothers never worried about Odom's safety at work, but when they heard about the accident at LyondellBasell on Friday afternoon, they immediately thought of him. "We kept trying to call his cell phone, but it kept going to voicemail," Ricky Finley said.

Hours later, they confirmed that Odom was among the dead.

"I was at a loss for words when I found out, and it never really hit me till earlier today," Finley said Saturday. "There's a lot of things I wish I could've said. He'll never be forgotten."

Odom, who was divorced, liked working for Deep South because the company accommodated his schedule, allowing him to spend every other weekend with his 12-year-old son, Dalton, who lives in Kirbyville, Finley said.

"He lived for his son," he said.

Neighbor Becky Muldrow said she often spotted Odom tossing a football in his yard with Dalton or standing at a grill in his driveway, cooking his signature "Scooter burgers" and stuffed jalepenos for his buddies.

"He was just really laid back," Muldrow said. "You couldn't ask for a better neighbor." Odom always spoke highly of his company and loved his job, she said. He even gave her children a Deep South calendar with pictures of cranes from all over the world. "It's a wake-up call, that every day you wake up, you don't know what might happen," Muldrow said. "You just pray for the family that they can rely on God at a time like this."

Odom's co-worker, Daniel "DJ" Lee Johnson, was a perfectionist who died doing the work he loved, his stepfather, Phillip Barnes, said.

Just this month, Johnson was named foreman of the ironworkers who make their living putting up and taking down the towering crane.

All knew the danger

"We all know the risks involved, the potential risks," said Barnes, a crane operator. "Daniel was intensely loyal to his profession and his (ironworker) brothers, and his family. You couldn't hardly find a man more willing to jump in there." Johnson was always striving for perfection and could be harder on himself than anyone when he came up short.

"They were doing what we would refer to as routine work, but when you are dealing with equipment that massive, it goes beyond routine," Barnes said. Johnson, who grew up in the Baytown area, and his wife, Vanessa McMurtry, have three children, including a 9-month-old girl.

Barnes said the family has questions about what happened Friday afternoon, but it is overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from fellow ironworkers as well as Deep South. "(Vanessa) is broken very badly, and his mother is broken very badly," Barnes said. "They need support and prayer. There are no words that can console these ladies, maybe the best thing sometimes is to cry with them from afar."

Barnes recalled how he and his stepson had recently grown closer and talked about working together on the big crane.

"Last Monday night he gave me a kiss on the side of the head and told me he loved me," he recalled of Johnson. "I thank God for it because Daniel and I had made our peace a long time ago, but this was the first time he told me he loved me.

"You expect to bury your parents. You don't ever expect to bury your children," he said. Relatives of the two other victims, John D. Henry and Rocky Dale Strength, could not be reached for comment.

While grieving friends and family members are plagued by unanswered questions, some said they're uncertain whether the investigation launched Saturday will bring closure. "I don't know if it would help or not," Finley said. "It's not going to change anything." The accident site remained cordoned off as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an onsite investigation Saturday morning. Deep South and LyondellBasell, which also will conduct its own investigation, are cooperating with federal investigators, said David Roznowski, a spokesman for LyondellBasell.

"We wish we had all of the answers on what happened and why — but we do not — and speculating on cause would not resolve anything," Deep South officials said in a statement Saturday. "But we are actively working to find those answers. We are fully engaged and cooperating with OSHA in their investigation of the accident. Our common goal is to identify the root cause, correct any issue that may be found, and ensure that this type of tragic accident does not occur again."

The crane that fell Friday appears to have flipped over backward, even though it was not doing any heavy lifting at the time, according to observers.

Set to be used on a maintenance project at the LyondellBasell refinery, the machine had done an 800,000-pound test lift earlier in the week, company officials said. But the crane was still being adjusted and configured. It was not scheduled for any lifts Friday.

'An unusual situation'

Edward McGowen, a retired crane operator hired as a consultant for an attorney representing injured workers, said it appears that the crane flipped over backward. This can occur for a number of reasons, including failure of devices called boom backstops, which are supposed to prevent the boom, or lifting arm, from rising to an angle higher than 85 degrees.

"This is an unusual situation," McGowen said, adding that he remembers a similar incident at Marathon Oil's Texas City refinery in 1987.

In that case, the crane operator cut loose a load he was lifting to avoid one accident, but the recoil of the lifting arm sent the crane toppling backward, he said. The dropped load ruptured pipes that led to a tank containing anhydrous hydrogen fluoride, which leaked and created a dangerous vapor cloud.

As of Saturday, McGowen had not been on the LyondellBasell accident site and said he does not know what caused the incident.

The crane appears to be similar to a Versa-crane TC 36000. It is among the largest land-based cranes built. At about 300 feet tall, the crane's boom, or lifting arm, reaches 436 feet.

The crane was running at the time of the accident and collapsed on top of a smaller crane that had been used to help assemble the larger crane by installing counterweights, cables and rigging. It also fell on an air-conditioned tent provided by LyondellBasell as a break area for the workers involved in the maintenance program.

The project at the 700-acre refinery at 12000 Lawndale involves overhauling one of several so-called coker units, which converts residual oil from other refining processes into high sulphur fuels and a coal-like substance called petroleum coke.

Refineries typically try to schedule such work during cooler weather and when demand for gasoline isn't at its peak, but Roznowski said the company had to make its schedule fit the availability of the crane. There are relatively few cranes big enough for the coker overhaul work, he said.

Counselors available

The refinery's operations were unaffected by the accident, but the maintenance project has been temporarily suspended.

Grief counselors are on hand, and meetings will be held with the refinery's roughly 3,000 employees and contractors to hear their concerns and discuss safety procedures. Margaret Landry, a spokeswoman for Deep South, said the company was deeply shaken.

"It is a family-owned business, and we are grieving right now with our employees and families going through this tragedy," she said. "We're just getting through it." Staff writer Dane Schiller contributed to this report.

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