CAMBRIA — A year has gone by, and the wooden crosses will soon come down. But that doesn’t mean Didion employees will ever forget Duelle Block, Robert Goodenow, Carlos “Charly” Nunez, Angel Reyes and Pawel Tordoff.
On the lawn in front of the under-reconstruction Didion Milling plant in the village of Cambria, five crabapple saplings, with their tiny fruit emerging from the blossoms, surround a stone monument, with a bronze plaque displaying the names of the five Didion employees who died as a result of an explosion at the mill on May 31, 2017.
Coral Didion, corporate counsel for the company, describes it as a “living memorial” — intended to be a peaceful place where employees can pause at two picnic tables, within sight of the trees and the monument.
The new memorial was one key topic at Monday’s Cambria Village Board meeting, where Didion officials have customarily been included on the agenda to provide updates — a custom that predated the explosion and continued steadily in its aftermath.
“We’re having people go there to reflect and remember,” Didion said.
Does that mean, asked Village President Glen Williams, the crosses are coming down?
Didion said four of the five wooden, flower-decorated crosses erected near the Didion Milling sign off Highway 146 still remain. One has been taken down, and the others will soon follow, she said.
The “living memorial” is the most visible sign of the company moving forward, but not the only one, said Didion Vice President Dale Drachenberg.
Construction of the rebuilt milling plant is on schedule, with completion targeted by the end of this year and occupancy by the first three months of 2019, Drachenberg said.
The company is starting to receive crates of milling equipment from overseas manufacturers in nations like Japan and Hungary.
“They don’t make any milling equipment in the United States,” Drachenberg said.
The new equipment, he said, is designed to be computer-operated. The automation is intended to minimize the time people spend in the milling area, he said.
That means the milling operations, once they resume early next year, will need workers who are trained in computers, said Didion spokeswoman Aisha Bachlani.
Didion said existing employees will be offered the opportunity for training to work in a more automated environment.
When Williams asked how many “specialized” employees the company intends to take on, Drachenberg said he did not yet know.
Details of how the automated process would work, Drachenberg said, have yet to be worked out. But, he said, “It’s going to be the safest plant that technology will allow.”
Toward that end, Didion officials are working with Cambria Fire Chief Cody Doucette and a fire suppression system contractor to address the conditions that led to the explosion.
No cause has been definitively determined; that might not happen for years. But the federal Chemical Safety Board has examined the debris from the explosion, and said combustible dust almost certainly was a key contributing factor.
Drachenberg said Didion officials continue to work with the Chemical Safety Board — which is not a regulatory body, but rather conducts studies and suggests “best practices” for industries to prevent incidents like the Didion explosion.
Coral Didion added that the company continues to contest more than $1.8 million in fines leveled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for safety violations, some of which OSHA officials have described as “egregious.”