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Families of 3 men killed in Starved Rock explosion sue demolition, construction companies

Lawsuit accuses companies of leaving behind unexploded devices after demolishing a bridge.

Attorney Patrick A. Salvi, center, listens to a question Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, after discussing a lawsuit against construction and demolition companies over the deaths of Immer Rivera Tejada, 39, Rafael Rivera Tejada, 36, and their nephew Guillermo Rivera Tejada, 26.
Attorney Patrick A. Salvi, center, listens to a question Thursday after discussing a lawsuit against construction and demolition companies over the deaths of Immer Rivera Tejada, 39, Rafael Rivera Tejada, 36, and their nephew Guillermo Rivera Tejada, 26.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The families of three men killed in an explosion near Starved Rock State Park have sued the construction companies and demolition team they believe left behind an undetonated explosive device.

The families’ attorneys have hinted for months that the explosion was connected to demolition work near the state park.

Little Village residents Immer Rivera Tejada, 39, Rafael Rivera Tejada, 36, and their nephew Guillermo Rivera Tejada, 26, were killed in the explosion May 6. The men routinely visited Starved Rock to fish, and it was common for them to make a campfire on the bank of the river and cook the day’s catch.

“To these three fathers, they used what appeared to them to be a copper pipe — just an innocent looking copper pipe on the shore — and they used it to prop up the handle of their pan to cook the fish,” said Patrick Salvi, an attorney with the firm Salvi, Schostok and Pritchard.

“Unbeknownst to them, this was no copper pipe. As it turns out, this copper pipe was an undetonated linear shape charge — an explosive device that was most recently used in the demolition of Route 178 Bridge less than two months earlier.”

The explosion left seven children ages 3 to 15 fatherless, Salvi said.

Maluc Cordoba-Arce, the family spokeswoman and wife of Immer Rivera Tejada, said they always knew the men were innocent victims.

Maluc Cordoba-Arce talks about the death of her husband, Immer Rivera Tejada, during a news conference Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Maluc Cordoba-Arce talks about the death of her husband, Immer Rivera Tejada, during a news conference Thursday.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

“These men were three pillars of our family. Our children will now grow up without their dads, without their love and support,” Cordoba-Arce said. “We live in Chicago, three different houses on the same block all together, we are a very close family and words cannot fully describe the depths of the pain we feel to lose so many family members all at once.”

Cordoba-Arce fought back tears describing the past several months.

“We will never be the same because of a tragedy that should have never happened,” Cordoba-Arce said. “I am here to pursue the justice and accountability our family deserves and, most importantly, to prevent any other families from going through what my family is going through each and every day.”

Salvi said the deaths sparked an investigation by the Illinois State Police and the FBI that yielded a 600-page report. Through that report, and an investigation by the families’ attorneys, they claim D. Construction, Gillan Construction and Orica USA were responsible for leaving behind the explosive device that killed the three men.

D. Construction and Orica USA declined to comment on this story. Gillan Construction did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

These companies “brought these explosive devices, planned the demolition, transported the devices, utilized these devices and then lost the devices,” Salvi said. An unaccounted for device “fell into the hands of three unknowing fishermen,” Salvi said.

A photo of the undetonated explosive device found on March 29, less than two months before the May 6 explosion at Starved Rock State Park.
A photo of an undetonated explosive device found March 29, less than two months before three men died in an explosion May 6 near Starved Rock State Park.
Provided

“One of the most disturbing parts of the investigation was that there was not just this one explosive device left behind,” Salvi said. “The investigation revealed just 11 days after the initial demolition, another undetonated linear shape charge was found and not surprisingly, contrary to Illinois law, was not reported.”

On March 18, there was a scheduled implosion of Route 178 Bridge by the companies under a contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation, according to the lawsuit. Linear shaped explosives were used because of the bridge’s steel trusses. An employee of D. Construction found a leftover charge on March 29 but it wasn’t reported to the state, the lawsuit said.

Less than two months later, the men would find a second device and use it as a prop to cook their fish. Salvi said the residue found on the victims match that of the same compound found in the explosive devices used to demolish the bridge.

Salvi said these devices have no markings on them that indicate it can explode but simply look like a hollow rod.

“We allege the companies, through their employees and agents, failed to control the explosive materials,” Salvi said. “They failed to perform what’s known as a post-blast inspection.”

Salvi said a careful inspection would have shown an explosive device did not properly detonate and the need to find it.