As the harvest season begins hitting its peak, an investigation into a fatal explosion and fire at Didion Milling’s corn processing plant has revealed few details about the cause of the disaster.
The beginning of October will mark four months since the explosion and fire that killed five employees and injured 11 others, sending victims to hospitals across the region. Officials have yet to determine the cause of the explosion or comment on the potential for civil or criminal liability.
The investigation into the May 31 incident that leveled much of the sprawling facility has been a cross-discipline, multi-jurisdiction effort involving local authorities, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, the State Fire Marshal and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Columbia County law enforcement and public safety authorities initially referred questions about the investigation to Cambria Fire Chief Cody Doucette, who also sits on the village of Cambria Board of Trustees. Doucette had said he expected to release an initial report 90 days after the date of the incident. As that date approached, state authorities took responsibility for the investigation.
In response to an Aug. 31 records request from the Portage Daily Register seeking additional information, State Fire Marshal Tina Virgil declined to release any details.
“The public release of these records at this time could compromise the ability for the State Fire Marshal’s Office to obtain accurate and truthful information during interviews of potential witnesses and interfere with any follow-up investigation,” Virgil wrote.
It is not clear how long the investigation may take.
While investigators continue searching for the cause of the incident, those affected by it are preparing to take legal action.
About two weeks after the explosion, Milwaukee-based law firm Habush Habush & Rottier announced it had been retained by the family of Duelle Block, who had been killed in the explosion, and also retained by a woman who had been injured that night.
“This was an accident that involved substantial injuries, death and multiple victims, and from what I can tell, involved other parties other than the management of the plant,” said Madison attorney Michael Fox of Fox & Fox S.C., who is not involved in litigation related to the incident.
Fox said he would expect the investigation to continue “at least a couple months” before seeing a determination. “If there were some contractors, for example, they may have had some involvement designing the features of this particular plant and that if that design contributed to the accident, OSHA wants to know those things as well,” he said.
Fox said a majority of any potential civil case would be built outside of the official investigation.
“For an individual attorney such as myself, we are not waiting on pins and needles for the results of an investigation,” Fox said. “A lot of times, the information that the government gets in its investigation is not nearly as comprehensive as what we get in our individual investigation. Once we begin representing someone, we have our own investigators and then potentially once a lawsuit is filed, we can use additional discovery devices, such as compelling testimony from individuals who may not be available to us unless a lawsuit is filed.”
Representatives from OSHA would not answer questions about the investigation or offer a timeline for its work.
In the course of the investigation, the answer may not be as simple as whether or not the company’s management is responsible for what happened, Fox said. In a high-risk environment such as a corn mill, a particular concern is finding a “source of ignition,” which could come from a variety of sources.
“Is it just an employee’s fault, is it nobody’s fault, is it the fault of the designer of the machinery or the situation that gave rise to that?” Fox said. “Sometimes people overly focus on these government agencies and, for example, when I sometimes do police shooting cases, typically every agency clears the individual officer and we usually end up developing 10 times the information that the government develops to reach its conclusion.”