Chesterton Tribune

Steelworkers Local 6787 honors those who perished in the mill

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Steel mills are cacophonous, cavernous, lonely crucibles.

They are—as Steelworkers Local 6787 President Paul Gipson has always said—terrible places to die.

Since 1967, 29 members of Local 6787 have perished in the mill at Burns Harbor and on Thursday, Workers Memorial Day, ground was broken in front of the union hall on a monument to their memory.

Stefan Cervick, a member since 1974, remembers some of those 29. He remembers David Reeves, who had a son and whose wife was pregnant with twin girls when he was killed by a splash of molten metal. He remembers Ronald Clarke, who suffered a horrific injury to his leg and bled to death in the ambulance.

“I was out at work when Ron’s accident happened,” Cervick told the Chesterton Tribune. “I went to see it. I wish I hadn’t. It burns an image in your mind. What Paul says is true, a mill is a terrible place to die.”

A few years back, Cervick ran into Reeves’ widow at the Porter County Fair. “I told her (David) was sorely missed,” he said. “And that got me thinking about what we have here at the hall memorializing those killed at the mill. We have a plaque. And as great as our union is, we could have something a little more considerable, a little more ennobling.”

So in the fall of 2004, Cervick went to Gipson and broached the idea of a monument. “Paul graciously said yes and asked me to be chair of the committee,” he said. A series of poker runs was held, Leroy’s Hot Stuff and Pat’s Liquors in Porter enthusiastically threw their support behind the project, contributions were also made by not-for-profits like the United Way, while the lion’s share of the funds were donated by the membership.

When completed—possibly in June—the monument will be some six feet in height and six and half in width and cited in front of the flag pole, facing the highway, at the entrance to the union hall on Ind. 149 in Portage. “Memories fade of what people looked like,” Cervick said. “But the names shall never be lost or forgotten.”

The work of steelmaking being what it is, space will be left on the monument for more names, Cervick noted. “But this is what I’m hoping for: no more names, ever.”

The Ceremony

Acting Local President Pete Trinidad opened a brief groundbreaking ceremony by recalling that April 28 was chosen to mark Workers Memorial Day because it commemorates the enactment, 40 years ago, of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act. “Union workers around the world now honor April 28 as an international day of mourning,” he said. “Today is a day of remembrance and reflection of our past,” he said. “Today is also a very proud but sad day for our local union. Twenty-nine members of our union came to work and never made it home. They are not forgotten.”

“There are 29 different stories that are represented by the names on this monument,” Trinidad added. “One of them was Jeff Fravel, who left this earth on July 27, 1977. He died tragically in a fire at our coke ovens. He was the seventh steelworker to lose his life in our plant. He was only 19 years old and left behind a 3-month-old son named David. David is now a member of this local union. There are 28 other stories just as tragic as this one. There are 28 other families who, like David, were robbed of a parent’s love and guidance.”

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-1st, expressed his hope that space left on the monument for more names will forever remain blank, observed that unions are committed not just to securing their members’ wages and benefits but to ensuring workplace safety, and noted that government has an enforcement role to play when employers put profits above their workers’ lives and health.

Portage Mayor Olga Velazquez, for her part, said that she was honored to remember those “who gave their blood and sweat and lives.”

“Local 6787 has never forgotten the 29 co-workers who lost their lives while trying to achieve the American Dream: to make a decent wage and have a home to raise a family,” Trinidad concluded the ceremony. “This monument will serve as a place of reflection for some and as a reminder to us, and those who come after us, of our brothers and sisters who lost their lives in the Burns Harbor plant. It also serves as a reminder of the inherent dangers we face each and every day while we endeavor to achieve that same American Dream. With God’s grace and guidance, may we reach our goal of zero deaths in the workplace so we may never have to place another name on this monument.”

In Memoriam, Local 6787

The 29 brothers and sisters of United Steelworkers Local 6787 who gave their lives in the Burns Harbor mill:

•Donald Beschinski, 1943-67.

•John T. Plavchak, 1936-67.

•Eugene Barnes, 1922-69.

•Larry W. Nichols, 1945-70.

•Daniel Villagran, 1946-70.

•Richard Neill, 1951-71.

•George J. Pasa, 1953-74.

•Jeff Fravel, 1958-77.

•David Reeves, 1953-78.

•George Tremmel, 1947-79.

•Tyron Bolden, 1955-79.

•Steve Silvasi, 1942-79.

•Paul J. Shanahan, 1932-80.

•Henry LaForet, 1958-82.

•Larry Langman, 1933-82.

•Robert Fogus, 1934-84.

•Judy Miller, 1944-87.

•Leo R. Ford, 1934-90.

•Bill K. Snelling, 1944-90.

•Robert Wegner, 1945-91.

•Joseph Rogers, 1939-92.

•Donna J. Stearns, 1963-96.

•James E. Stout, 1941-96.

•James Soda, 1949-97.

•Ronald E. Clarke, 1947-98.

•Daniel E. Kado, 1946-01.

•Randal E. Moehl, 1955-02.

•Kevin L. Sullivan, 1955-06.

•Russell L. Payne, 1947-08.

The inscription: “In Memoriam. The years of our departed brothers and sisters are brought to an end. Their cause will never fail. Their memory shall not fade. Others have picked up the struggle for our departed. Steel will no longer reach its temper from their sweat and blood. They remain as our conscience to help us remain consistent with the realities of working class life. Local Union 6787 USW.”

Posted 4/29/2011