Two employees injured in Phelps due to explosion
A Friday morning explosion at Phelps Cast severely burned a Berntsen Brass and Aluminum Foundry employee and injured one other person, according to reports from company officials.
Company Vice President James Dudley said pieces of information are still coming together and members from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating this week along with insurance departments.
“They’re all in shock,” said Dudley Friday morning, after the explosion. “Nothing like this has ever happened before. When it blew, it shook the entire building.”
The man who was severely burned is 31-year old Kenneth Martinez of Eagle River.
Updates from company officials late Tuesday said his condition was improving and the burns to his face were "superficial".
Members of Phelps Fire Department, Phelps Area Emergency Medical Service, Eagle River Ambulance and Land O’ Lakes Emergency Services were called to the scene shortly after 9 a.m., Friday when a call was received at the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office detailing an explosion with injuries.
Shortly after officials arrived on scene, Ministry Health Care Spirit Helicopter was dispatched to airlift Martinez from the scene to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Burn Center.
Initial reports were that a furnace exploded at Phelps Cast and it was unknown at the time how many people were injured.
Dudley confirmed that Martinez was the operator of a brass furnace, used to heat the metal to temperatures over 2,300 degrees, was working above the furnace when it exploded.
"He was following proper work procedures and wearing protective gear," Dudley said.
Dudley said Martinez had taken a sample of the brass inside the approximately 55-gallon unit and it came back low in zinc.
“What we do is we use a spectrometer to conduct a metal analysis. At that point and time, the sample said the product was low on zinc,” said Dudley. “The employee was going to add an addition of zinc, about a 20-pound brick.”
Dudley said he believes the employee was following standard procedure when he lifted the hydraulic lid to the furnace, which acts as a hood to remove smoke and access fumes. He slid the lid approximately 6 inches to the side and added the zinc brick when the explosion happened.
“They are still not sure what caused the explosion,” said Dudley. “Martinez was wearing protective clothing, and had a helmet and a face mask on at the time. The explosion blew his helmet right off.”
Dudley said the foreman who was standing nearby tackled him to get him away and also was burned in the act.
The names of the two employees hurt in the explosion were not available as of press time. Dudley did say the blast was contained and there didn’t appear to be any structural damage to the building.
“We will have a more accurate understanding after insurance inspections are done this week,” he said.
Dudley, who works at Berntsen Brass and Aluminum Foundry in Madison, said Phelps Cast employs about 20 people.
The Phelps plant opened in 1998, after the Madison-based headquarters expanded and moved equipment from a Milwaukee facility.
The company as a whole recently celebrated 70 years in business.
The family has setup a GoFundMe page online for donations to help Martinez's family while he is in the hospital. Donations can also be made locally to the Kenneth Martinez Burn Victim fund at mBank locations in Eagle River, Three Lakes and St. Germain.