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Workers 'exhausted' at Conn. plant

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Some workers building a Connecticut power plant shattered by a gas explosion had been spending more than 80 hours a week there before the blast killed five Sunday, The Associated Press has learned. One employee said workers smelled gas less than an hour beforehand and were told to open doors wider for air.

The son of one of those killed told the AP on Tuesday that his father told him the crew felt pressure to finish the Kleen Energy Plant.

Erik Dobratz, the son of pipefitter Ray Dobratz, said his father had told him he was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for six months.

''A lot of the guys on the job were doing this for six months, and they were exhausted,'' Dobratz said. ''They were all exhausted. To me that just seems a little ridiculous. Eighty-five hours a week -- accidents happen, if you ask me.''

Dobratz said he wouldn't be surprised if the long hours turned out to be a factor in the explosion, which occurred as workers cleared natural-gas lines in a test.

''If something comes out that someone forgot to do something could it be because they were really tired and thought they did it and didn't do it?'' Dobratz asked.

Paul Gaskins -- who was working on a steam turbine at the time of the explosion and described a scene of chaos and disorientation after workers were hurled through the air -- said Tuesday that he and his colleagues worked 12 to 13 hours every day but that they were not rushed.

He said workers had expressed concerns less than an hour earlier about a natural-gas smell in the building and were told only to open nearby doors a bit wider to let in more air.

The problem of purging gas has become serious enough that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents, voted last week to approve new safety recommendations for how it should be done. The federal agency has urged workers to vent gases outdoors and use detectors to monitor gas levels while purging gas lines. If that's not possible, all nonessential workers should leave the area.

Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the board, said it still can't say whether that's what happened in Middletown because they haven't had access to the site.

A spokesman for the contractor, O&G Industries Inc., would not comment. A message left at Keystone Construction, for which Dobratz worked, was not immediately returned. Messages were also left for union officials.

The state Department of Labor declined to comment on the long hours because of the investigation and Gov. M. Jodi Rell's call for a committee to investigate such issues.

The powerful explosion blew apart large swaths of the nearly completed 620-megawatt Kleen Energy Systems plant as workers for O&G purged a gas line Sunday morning. The cause is being investigated, and authorities launched a criminal investigation Monday, saying they couldn't rule out negligence.