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Far South Side explosion baffles victim’s sister, officials investigating

This explosion and roof collapse happened shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant at 400 E. 130th St. | ABC7 Chicago

Carl Malinowski, 51, has worked at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant for over a decade.

Described as a “skilled, trained ironworker” by Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Acting Executive Director John Murray, Malinowski was sent in Thursday morning to execute the routine procedure of removing a frozen bolt with a torch.

Hours later, 70 rescue workers had to dig 6 feet down and tunnel through 40 feet of concrete to save the entombed Malinowski following an explosion in that section of the plant that sent the entire roof pancaking straight down.

The methane-induced blast has officials and relatives baffled. While methane is a natural byproduct of the water reclamation process, Murray said the department never sends flame-wielding workers in a methane-filled room, and said, to his knowledge, Malinowski had no previous safety violations.

While Chicago Fire Department investigations have stated a torch set off the explosion, Murray said that’s still under investigation; it could have been set off by a rogue spark. It was still unclear whether anyone else in the room had a torch other than Malinowski.

The Illinois Department of Labor is onsite and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will arrive Tuesday to investigate what ignited the explosion and how such an abundance of methane collected in the area undetected.

Murray said workers wear methane-detecting monitors to ensure there’s no trace of the flammable gas in their work area. He said all the workers were wearing their monitors Thursday, but, to his knowledge, none of them went off.

“We would never put our employees in harm’s way and have them do something unusual,” Murray said. “Nothing was out of the ordinary (before the accident).”

While highly flammable, but methane only becomes explosive in higher concentrations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s maximum recommended safe methane concentration for workers during an eight hour period is .1 percent. Methane levels between 5 and 15 percent are required for an explosion.

Nine others were injured in Thursday’s explosion. Eight emerged relatively unscathed, one was trapped for 20 minutes and sustained some injuries and Malinowski –– trapped for two hours –– suffered serious injuries.

Malinowski’s sister, Carolyn Grisko, said he is recovering from a shattered leg and a broken jaw, nose, shoulder blade, breastbone, wrist, and spinal discs. He will begin the first of many surgeries tomorrow at the latest, she said.

Though grateful for the bravery of the rescue crews who saved her brother’s life, Grisko is left unsettled with so many unanswered questions regarding the accident.

“They have no idea what happened,” she said. “Why was methane allowed to build up? Why wasn’t it detected on the monitors? Who gave them the okay to do this? There are many questions here, and there needs to be answers. We need to figure this out so nothing like this ever happens again.”