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The ironworker, the engineer, the sheriff and the lawyer didn't hear the screeching sounds, the popping noises and the loud bangs as the 567-foot-tall Big Blue crane lifting a 450-ton piece collapsed into the innards of Miller Park on a warm and sunny day 15 years ago.
The ironworker, the business manager for Iron Workers Local 8, was headed to Mackinac Island for a meeting. The engineer had just left Miller Park to pick up his daughter from day care. The sheriff had just reached his West Allis home when he got a call about a problem at the ballpark. And the lawyer was at a Milwaukee radio station for a previously scheduled interview when he was told he was being bumped for coverage of a chaotic and deadly scene at the nearly completed stadium.
Three ironworkers - Jeffrey Wischer, 40, William DeGrave, 39, and Jerome Starr, 52 - would die on July 14, 1999, as debris from the crane collapse knocked their man basket 300 feet down to the stadium floor.
The widows of those ironworkers, part of a tight-knit brotherhood not unlike firefighters and police officers and their families, have since moved on with their lives. Robert Habush, the lawyer who represented them in a drama-filled civil trial, says Trish Wischer, Marjorie DeGrave and Ramona Dulde-Starr prefer to stay out of the limelight.
The crane collapse is not easily forgotten. In Milwaukee, the Big Blue collapse still resonates with people who experienced it firsthand.
The incident sent a collective shudder of fear, pain and sorrow throughout the community as word quickly spread that three workers had lost their lives. Miller Park was not only going to be the new home of the Milwaukee Brewers, it was going to be a monument to the skilled workers who built it.
Now it was a crime scene. And it would take $100 million to repair the stadium.
"I hadn't even parked my squad at home when I got the call," said Lev Baldwin, then the Milwaukee County sheriff. "I headed right down there. We didn't know if it was a bomb or something. Then we were told it was the crane. We didn't know at first blush how many people were injured or even killed."
With the assistance of the Milwaukee police and fire departments, an urban rescue team was set up. Baldwin was the lead law enforcement officer.
Mike Duckett, then as now the executive director of the Miller Park Stadium District and an engineer, said the lift of the roof panel had been planned for the morning. But it was too windy. They met again at 1 p.m. with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of America, which leased the crane from Lampson International Ltd. It was Mitsubishi's call when to make a lift or pick.
Late that afternoon, the decision was made to go ahead with the pick.
"My cellphone rang before I got home," Duckett said. "I dropped my daughter off at a neighbor's house and started to drive back. I was praying the whole way there that nobody was hurt. Then I get there and they had the tarps on the three bodies. It was the most tragic day in my professional career."
To this day, Duckett says there are three days in his life he will never forget. One was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The second was the 9-11 attacks. And the third was Big Blue.
"Every time I think about the crane accident, emotions just take over. It's hard to remember the technical details. It just gets washed over by the emotions," Duckett said.
With Duckett on the scene, the entire stadium needed to be searched for workers who may have been injured or killed.
"We knew of the three who had lost their lives," Duckett said. "There were another half dozen or so who were not accounted for. The search and rescue team was reluctant to go into the building because they were concerned with the structural integrity."
Each search team brought along an engineer or someone familiar with the structure.
"Each of us had a floor," Duckett said. "We called out, 'Is anybody in there? Is everybody OK?' We walked through the entire building that way."
As much damage as there was, the stadium's service level was intact. And there was a surprise as crews walked through the wreckage.
"Two thousand tons of steel fell into the building," Duckett said. "And the glass windows didn't break."
There was plenty to investigate. Baldwin had cordoned off the entire stadium and kept the huge media throng away. "We considered it a possible crime scene," Baldwin said. "You had to.
"This was a tough one," Baldwin added. "When you're involved in it as deeply as we were, everybody cared. We felt sorry for the widows and the families. Unfortunately, it was an accident."
Brent Emons, the business manager of Local 8, got the call in the Upper Peninsula. He turned around and started driving back to Milwaukee. He knew Wischer, DeGrave and Starr.
"I was with the local 37 years," said Emons, who is now retired. "We set up a trust fund for the widows and we gave them the money."
The crane collapse was a tragic loss for all ironworkers, sometimes a nomadic group that works in far-flung places.
"We are a close-knit group of people. They have a dangerous and hard job. We keep to ourselves but we stick together. There has always been that brotherhood," Emons said.
Hours after the crane collapse, Trish Wischer called Habush's answering service. The next morning, Habush returned the call.
"She told me that her husband had been concerned about the safety of the site for some time," Habush said. "He told her that someone was going to get killed out there. And he said to her that 'if something happens to me, I want you to call Bob Habush.' And so she did."
Within 48 hours of the crane collapse, the finger-pointing began. Mitsubishi was blaming the crane designer, Lampson. And Lampson was accusing Mitsubishi of negligence.
"This was a dream come true for a plaintiff's lawyer," Habush said. "And District Attorney Michael McCann was already on the scene looking for potential liability. That scared the (expletive) out of the Japanese supervisors and engineers. They're in America and they are not certain about American justice. They were worried they would go to jail."
Habush moved quickly. "I had a sense I had to get to witnesses right away. When I heard about the wind that day and the velocity, I started to think more than just negligence, but outrageous conduct," he said.
Habush sued on behalf of the widows in August 1999.
Habush hired a crane expert from New York to help him. By luck, he got Howard Shapiro on the phone before the insurance companies had a chance to hire him.
Shapiro went to work and started digging. "What happened was the lift of the huge roof piece was done at a speed outside the recommended 20 miles per hour," Habush said. "The wind caught it like a sail and pulled the crane over. The wind caused the parts to break in the crane. The parts didn't break by the lift weight."
Habush deposed dozens and dozens of people. He recalls doing nearly all of it himself. It was clear he wanted to take the case to trial.
"Those women were so angry at how their husbands had died. They had gotten all of these reports how Mitsubishi and Victor Grotlisch had abused safety and was taking chances. They did not want to settle. They wanted me to get a pound of flesh. I never had to worry about them wanting to settle the case," Habush said.
Grotlisch was Mitsubishi's site supervisor at the stadium. He became the villain.
"The widows wanted me to rip Grotlisch to shreds," Habush said.
On Dec. 1, 2000, a Milwaukee County jury awarded a $99.25 million verdict in the Big Blue case. Mitsubishi was found 97% negligent; Lampson, 3%.
After the trial ended and with an appeal pending, the widows were guaranteed $27 million.
In 2006, all parties reached an out-of-court settlement, giving the widows about $30 million more.
Thinking back 15 years later, Emons remembered how the whole community felt wounded by the accident.
"I had never felt that before. I wasn't used to it. It was overwhelming. The support of the people was unbelievable," Emons said.
In the plaza outside of home plate at Miller Park, a sculpture entitled "Teamwork" features three ironworkers: a woman, an African-American and a Native American. The Habush law firm's charitable foundation paid for the artwork. The plaque states: "In appreciation of all the Miller Park workers and in memory of Jeffrey A. Wischer, William R. DeGrave and Jerome W. Starr."