WASCO – Beneath fluttering yellow police tape a small wooden cross stands in the black furrowed earth of a Sherman County wheat field.
The roadside memorial is hung with a beaded rosary and surrounded by daisies and carnations. In the distance, a white steel tower that once stood 20 stories high is doubled over and broken.
Investigators are just beginning to sort out how one of the hundreds of wind turbines that have been installed in Oregon collapsed this weekend, killing one worker and injuring another.
“We don’t know a lot more than we did yesterday,” said Melanie Forbrick, spokeswoman for Siemens Power Generation, the German company that built the wind turbine, part of the Klondike III wind farm set to begin providing power later this year.
On Monday, Siemens suspended all inspection and maintenance work on its turbines worldwide. “We just wanted to take some precautionary measures,” said Forbrick.
Investigators from Siemens and the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration spent Monday looking through the wreckage at the base of tower W-1, where 60-ton rotor blades half the length of a football field sat twisted and torn open.
“We will try to re-create those final moments before the collapse,” said OSHA spokesman Kevin Weeks.
The regulatory agency will also look for possible flaws in the tower’s engineering and try to determine whether safety and health rules were violated.
“At this point, it’s way too early to tell what happened,” Weeks said.
The tower fell Saturday afternoon as two workers were performing a scheduled inspection. Wasco County Sheriff Brad Lohrey said winds at the time were about 25 mph.
“It wasn’t high wind, but there was wind,” said Blaine Sundwall, director of wind operations and maintenance for Portland-based PPM Energy, which operates Klondike III’s 124 turbines.
Chadd Mitchell, 35, of Goldendale, Wash., a Siemens employee, was working at the top of the tower when it collapsed and was killed in the fall. Mitchell, a father of three, had been working at Klondike since July 10. On Monday, his relatives gathered in Goldendale.
“He was loved by everyone. He was a larger-than-life person and devoted to his family and friends,” the family said in a statement. “He just would do anything to help anyone.”
Bill Trossen of Minnesota, a contract worker who was midway up the inside of the tower, was hospitalized for a broken thumb but otherwise unhurt.
“The fall protection equipment for the fellow that was hospitalized definitely saved his life,” said Sundwall.
Turbines stand about 400 feet tall from ground to upper-most blade tip. The Siemens turbine, with its 2.3-megawatt capacity, would have been the most powerful unit to begin generating electricity in the Columbia River Gorge. Each boasts a slightly higher tower and longer blades than the more common 1-megawatt to 1.5-megawatt turbines.
Some 1,140 turbines are churning out electricity along the gorge in Oregon and Washington. Projects in various stages of construction could add 494 turbines to that count by 2008.
The American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group that tracks wind-farm development, said Saturday’s accident was the first time someone has died in a tower collapse in the United States.
“With roughly 20,000 turbines in the ground, this is an anomaly,” said association spokeswoman Susan Williams Sloan.
OSHA’s Weeks said the state investigation could take up to four months. The agency has the authority to issue civil penalties ranging from $300 to $70,000 per violation.
In May, OSHA conducted an inspection of the site and cited Siemens for three minor violations. Two involved the turbine maker’s failure to establish a formal safety committee and the third had to do with a too-high gap between the ground and the first rungs of the stairways inside the towers.
Siemens has corrected the stairway issue, Weeks said, and has until Sunday to deal with the other two citations.
“They were minor violations,” said Forbrick. “As far as we can ascertain, they have no relevance to the incident.”
Forbrick, based at the company’s North American headquarters in Orlando, Fla., said the turbine blades were manufactured in Denmark and the towers in the United States.
At the site of the accident, Mitchell’s co-workers have scrawled messages in black ink on the bare wooden cross placed in his honor.
“You’re the best friend I have had and I miss you so much. Your friend, Bob,” read one.
Throughout the day other workers and the merely curious drove down the dusty gravel road through the county wheat fields to view the fallen tower. In the tiny wheat town of Wasco that abuts the 20,000-acre Klondike project, the mood has been somber at the Lean To Cafe, where a picture of one of the first wind turbines being installed hangs next to hunting trophies, and many workers come for lunch.
“We’re all very concerned,” said waitress Sheri Van Guilder. “Our heart just goes out to them.”
August 28, 2007
MATTHEW PREUSCH and GAIL HILL