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20 years after deadly crane crash at Brewers' Miller Park, it's still 'an emotional roller coaster'

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/15/2019 Meg Jones

Trish Wischer's husband was an ironworker who was the son and brother of ironworkers.

So perhaps it's not surprising that her youngest son would become one, too.

Wischer is proud her son chose ironwork as a profession but she worries, as moms do, about his safety. Her feelings of concern for her son are rooted in tragedy.

Twenty years ago Sunday, Wischer heard the news about the Big Blue crane collapse at Miller Park and instinctively knew, even before getting official word, that her husband Jeff was involved. Later she learned he had been killed along with two fellow ironworkers.

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Of her 28-year-old son R.J., she said, "He really enjoys (ironwork.) Everybody likes him; it's not because of whose son he is but who he is."

It's difficult for Wischer and her family to go to Miller Park. They go to ballgames and events and walk by the sculpture of ironworkers in the plaza in front of the home plate entrance memorializing the loss of three lives.

"It's an emotional roller coaster. This time of year is very difficult for me," Wischer said. "I don't care what anybody says. You don't get over losing the love of your life."

Lifting the equivalent of a Boeing 747

When plans were unveiled for what would become Miller Park, at the forefront of the design was a retractable roof that opened like a poker hand. Lifting roof sections into place required a very specialized piece of equipment — a 567-foot-tall machine called "the mother of all cranes" and "Big Blue" because of its bright color.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the firm hired to design and build the stadium's roof, rented Big Blue from Neil F. Lampson Inc. to lift the equivalent of a Boeing 747 into the air more than 30 times. On July 14, 1999, construction crews were scheduled to lift a 450-ton piece of the roof destined for the stadium's right field. But that morning brisk winds delayed the work.

Late in the afternoon, the roof section was picked up by Big Blue and began moving into place. Jeff Wischer, William DeGrave and Jerome Starr were lifted 200 feet into the air in a "man basket" by another crane to observe.

A video shot by a federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration official vividly shows the accident — a high-pitched screeching followed by several loud booms as ballast on Big Blue falls to the ground. Then the crane slowly topples over, crumpling against the stadium's outer wall, debris raining down as horrified onlookers gasped and shouted expletives.

Falling debris collided with the basket, sending the men to their deaths.

Their widows hired attorney Robert Habush in a lawsuit against Mitsubishi and Lampson and during a trial, Habush argued that Mitsubishi's on-site superintendent and two others disregarded the hazards of lifting the roof piece in conditions that were too windy. 

a group of people posing for the camera: Members of the Union Ironworkers Motorcycle Club stand near the Ironworkers Memorial at Miller Park as Steve Hallman places roses on the memorial Thursday, just before the 20th anniversary of the Big Blue crane accident. © Colin Boyle/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Members of the Union Ironworkers Motorcycle Club stand near the Ironworkers Memorial at Miller Park as Steve Hallman places roses on the memorial Thursday, just before the 20th anniversary of the Big Blue crane accident.

A Milwaukee County jury in 2000 found Mitsubishi 97% negligent and Lampson 3%, awarding the widows a total of $99 million. The verdict was appealed and ultimately a $57 million settlement was reached.

"Like many tragedies, it was preventable," Habush said in a phone interview this week. "Just some plain common sense and some appreciation for the lives of your workers would prevent something like that."

Though construction jobs continue to be dangerous, safety measures and training have changed in the 20 years since Wischer, DeGrave and Starr died.

When a large section of the Hoan Bridge fell off a year after the Big Blue crash, requiring emergency repairs in the heavily-used traffic corridor, state Department of Transportation officials were mindful of the Miller Park tragedy when devising a fix.

Among the options to salvage the damaged section of the Hoan Bridge were ones requiring workers to position themselves directly under the dangerously unstable structure. Those options were not chosen and high-velocity explosives were instead used to demolish the damaged section of the bridge. There were no injuries.

Noting that concrete and steel can be replaced but human lives cannot, a DOT official said in 2000: "We all remember the Miller Park incident. We didn't want to go through that."

'You don't ever want to forget'

When Miller Park Stadium District Executive Director Mike Duckett goes to work every day at the ballpark, he drives past the spot where Big Blue toppled over. He often thinks of that day, the lives lost, the pain, the sorrow.

"It's something you don't ever want to forget because you don't want the industry to get lax," said Duckett, who had just left Miller Park to pick up his daughter from day care when he got a call about the accident. 

Many have forgotten that three workmen were killed building Miller Park's predecessor, County Stadium, Duckett pointed out. A carpenter died of a skull fracture in 1950 when a heavy beam fell on him and two men were fatally injured in 1952 when the hoisting bucket they were riding in plummeted from a height of around 90 feet.

Three months before the Big Blue accident, a 53-year-old plumber suffered a heart attack and died at Miller Park's construction site.

This photo shows the remains of Big Blue, which crashed at Miller Park on July 14, 1999. © Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives This photo shows the remains of Big Blue, which crashed at Miller Park on July 14, 1999.

The OSHA video of the crane collapse is frequently shown in worker safety classes. Plus new technology has improved hard hats, reflective vests and eye and ear protection as well as techniques to ensure workers don't fall on the job, said Tony Mayrhofer, business manager of Iron Workers Local 8 in Milwaukee.

The Big Blue crane accident "definitely grew awareness of the value of safety," said Mayrhofer, who was an apprentice at the time of the crash. "A lot of people, especially ironworkers, understand safety is not to be taken lightly. We all look out for each other so we can all go home at the end of the day."

Wendy Selig-Prieb, Brewers president at the time of the accident, remembers seeing Vice President of Stadium Operations Scott Jenkins rush up to her that afternoon. She had never seen Jenkins, a college track athlete, winded and knew before he said anything, that something terrible had happened.

"You have three men who went to work and never came home," said Selig-Prieb. "I remember attending all of the funerals, meeting the families, the whole community felt the pain. It was the community coming together in the best way for the worst reason."

The next weeks and months were a blur as the Brewers continued playing games at County Stadium, where baseball fans could see the remains of Big Blue and watch crews clean up the wreckage before resuming construction of Miller Park.

In the years since Miller Park opened in 2001 – a year later than originally scheduled – the stadium has hosted concerts and soccer games, an All-Star Game, a no-hitter thrown by a Cubs pitcher, Brewers' wins and losses and playoff runs deep into the post-season.

Yes, Miller Park is the Brewers' home. But it's also a gleaming monument to the people who built it.

Trish Wischer now has eight grandchildren ranging from a 1-year-old to a recent high school graduate. All three of her children and their families live in Wisconsin, as does Wischer, something she didn't think would happen.

"When (Jeff) passed I thought I'd be out of here. But the overwhelming support from everyone was incredible and I stayed," said Wischer, who met her husband, a New Berlin native, while she was in college and working as a waitress in Colorado.

Jeff Wischer's father was an ironworker who was injured in a fall at a work site and when Jeff returned to Wisconsin from Colorado to visit his dad, he decided to move back. The couple married on Dec. 28, 1988, in a small wedding in Milwaukee and lived in Waukesha where they were raising their three kids.

a blurry image of a dog: William DeGrave © Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives William DeGrave

She has seen changes for the better in the ironworking industry.

"You can tell by even the changing of the harnesses they wear. They make sure everybody is safe," Trish Wischer said. "Accidents happen when they're just straight-up accidents. But there's a difference between an accident and a tragedy."

She's not sure why her youngest son decided to become an ironworker but figures it's probably the same reason her husband did, because it's in his blood. And because her son feels the same pride in watching cement and steel transform into a building that will last for generations.

"I look at all the places Jeff built. We used to drive around with the kids and say 'Oh, look at what daddy built,’ ” she said. "I think my son wants the same thing."

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 20 years after deadly crane crash at Brewers' Miller Park, it's still 'an emotional roller coaster'

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