Four die in Cambria mill plant blast

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

CAMBRIA - Smoke still drifted from the rubble of the corn mill at Didion Milling in Cambria when two former workers stopped to see the devastation on June 5, nearly a week after a blast tore through the plant, killing three workers and injuring about a dozen of the 16 in the plant at the time of the explosion.  

A fourth worker died days later in a hospital.

The blast and fire destroyed the corn milling plant in the small community about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Madison. It took several days for rescue crews to recover the bodies of three workers from the rubble.  

The destruction left after a May 31 explosion at the corn mill plant at Didion Milling greets drivers heading north on Highway 146 by Cambria. Three workers died in the explosion. Two other workers died in the hospital from injuries sustained in the explosion.

Didion Milling Plant operations vice president Derrick Clark said on June 2, that mill operator Duelle Block, fork lift operator Robert Goodenow and packing machine operator Pawel (pawl) Tordoff died in the explosion and fire that occurred late in the evening on May 31.

A fourth worker, Angel Reyes, died at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Didion Milling said in a statement on June 6. Reyes was a pack operator at the plant and died from injuries he suffered in the explosion, the company said.

 At least four remained hospitalized as of June 6. Didion had no word on the conditions of the employees who were injured.

Loss of friends

John Krist, of Denver, CO, and David Bobholz, of LaCrosse, looked at the devastation, calling it surreal, unbelievable. 

The two had both worked second shift at the mill, Krist as a mill operator, Bobholz started in sanitation and worked up to production lead. They knew many of the people involved in the explosion. 

"My best friend died in there," said Krist, referring to Block. 

Krist and Bobholz were shocked when they heard the news. Days later, looking at the smoldering pile of rubble, Krist was numb. 

"I've cried," said Krist. "It's good to be home and be with my friends."

A bouquet of wilted flowers hangs in the fence surrounding Didion Milling days after an explosion ripped through the corn mill plant on May 31 killing three workers and injuring about a dozen others. A fourth worker died in the hospital from injuries sustained in the blast.

Block moved to Cambria about the same time as Krist, living in the house behind him. The two soon became best friends, Krist said.

"It's really sad to leave and come back a year later without him," said Krist. 

Growing up in Cambria, Bobholz said Didion Milling was a cornerstone of the community.

"Every person in there was family," Bobholz explained. "Everybody knew each other in and out of there."

The two believed in the "Didion dream," the Didion difference," that stressed safety first. 

"They care. They really care," said Bobholz. "It's not just some big corporation."

"This is a close-knit community," Krist added. "Everyone has each other's backs. I'm sure with anything in this community, everyone would be there to pick each other back up."

Community response

The community responded to the devastation with vigils and fundraising. An overwhelming response for donations for the families affected by the explosion caused the drop-off location of donations to be moved from a church to the Cambria-Friesland School. 

"The caring, giving and support Cambria has been receiving after the Didion explosion is heartwarming," Village of Cambria Clerk Lois Frank said in a news release. "So many have reached out asking how they can help."

A fund has been set up at the National Exchange Bank in Cambria to donate to the families.  Funds can be mailed or dropped off at: Old Mill Foundation Didion Benefit Fund, %National Exchange Bank, 118 West Edgewater Street, P.O. Box 338, Cambria, WI  53923.

Bins were set up at stores to collect items. The First Presbyterian Church Food Pantry is collecting items for families of Didion Milling. 

A flag flies at half mast in front of the rubble left from a May 31 explosion at a corn mill plant at the Didion Milling complex in Cambria. Three workers died in the blast. A fourth died in the hospital from injuries sustained in the explosion.

Proceeds from a two-week Kringle sale will go to the benefit fund. Hurts Donut of Middleton created a special donut in honor of the Didion families, with all proceeds from a day's sale going to the fund. 

Saturday, June 10, the Cambria Park Committee is holding a silent auction during their June Tournament at Cambria Tarrant Park with all proceeds from the silent auction going to the Benefit Fund.

Carol’s Cones and the Pardeeville Fire Department are hosting a brat fry and ice-cream sale at Carol’s Cones 215 North Main Street, Pardeeville, on Saturday, June 10 from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. All proceeds from the sale will go to the Didion Benefit Fund.

A Cambria Has Heart t-shirt was designed and 500 t-shirts donated. The shirts will be sold for $20 each, raising $10,000 for the Benefit Fund if all the shirts are sold. 

A two-piece chicken dinner from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on July 15 at the Cambria-Friesland School will benefit the fund also. Cost of the dinner is a minimum donation of $5.

Moving ahead

While the community rallies around the families affected by the explosion, Didion Milling company's president, Riley Didion, told Cambria village board members Monday night that the neighboring ethanol plant, which was not damaged, will begin accepting loads of corn from farmers in the coming days.

A company executive said some employees have started returning to work at the mill complex.

An explosion ripped through a corn mill plant at the Didion Milling complex in Cambria on May 31. Three workers died in the blast. A fourth died several days later in the hospital from injuries sustained in the blast. About a dozen workers at the plant were injured.

Village president Glen Williams said the ethanol plant is about 300 yards from what's left of the mill. A neighboring ethanol plant was not damaged.

Cambria Fire Chief Cody Doucette said the rubble continues to smolder, but is contained by cement. The corn meal that continues to smolder will eventually burn out, Doucette said at the meeting.

Didion Milling employs more than 200 in facilities in Johnson Creek, Cambria and Markesan.

OSHA records

While the cause of the blast remains under investigation, the plant had been cited in January 2011 for exposing its workers to dust explosion hazards, according to records from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The records state that plant filters lacked an explosion protective system.

The agency ordered the mill to correct the problem by April 2011. The records show Didion paid a $3,465 fine and the case was closed in September 2013. OSHA hasn't cited the plant for anything since, the records show. The plant processes corn for ethanol and other uses.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.