Ron Burtless may well be next.
So, too, had Bethlehem Steel.
After a succession of losses through the 1980s, the company posted a profit in four of five years after 1993. It spent close to $1 billion modernizing Burns Harbor and other plants and began winning back market share from foreign rivals.
Among the many advantages of Bethlehem's return to profitability was that it was allowed to run its own workers' compensation program instead of being required to buy expensive insurance against industrial accidents, as most companies must. At Burns Harbor, the program was backed only by a sort of standby policy from another corporate giant, Illinois-based Kemper Insurance Cos.
It was an arrangement that Burtless had no reason to pay any attention to — until a year ago Easter Sunday.
From his first day at Burns Harbor, Burtless had worked at the front end of the steel-making process, where coal is turned into coke by heating it to 2,300 degrees. (The coke is combined with limestone and ore to form molten cast iron. The molten iron then goes to a blast furnace, where it is transformed into steel.)
At close to midnight on the holiday, a locomotive delivering 36 tons of fire-red coke to be quenched with thousands of gallons of water suddenly stalled. Burtless, the electrician on duty, was dispatched to find out why. As he reached for the ladder to scramble up into the engine cab, he fell into an open trench of boiling runoff.
Train operator Ron Lewis still recalls the scream: "It was like in the movies when somebody's getting electrocuted."
By the time Lewis got to him, Burtless was talking rapidly, joking about having been "lobstered," insisting he wasn't badly hurt. The plant ambulance raced him to a local hospital, where the doctor took one look and sent him on to Loyola University Medical Center's burn unit in Chicago.
Burtless remembers Patty getting on the phone and describing Nicky's day at nursery school to distract him from the pain. The nurses came in at 3 every morning to debride the wounds, scraping away the damaged layers of skin in search of what was still alive. Burtless suffered chills, and he underwent a lengthy operation in which skin was stripped from his upper thighs and grafted onto his lower legs.
He would soon discover that he had been stripped of his financial security as well.
After its mid-1990s comeback, Bethlehem Steel had stumbled again, the victim of intense foreign competition, industry consolidation and failed investments.
In May 2003, with Burtless still at Loyola recovering from surgery, the company sold all of its assets — but almost none of its liabilities — to International Steel Group, a two-year-old firm set up by investor and "vulture" fund operator Wilbur L. Ross Jr. At virtually the same moment, Kemper Insurance found itself sinking under a mountain of claims, many of them connected with Enron Corp.'s implosion and the priest abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
The combination ripped right out from under Burtless the workers' compensation safety net that was supposed to have caught him when he fell.
It remains murky who is responsible for Burtless' medical bills. Lawyers for Bethlehem and the Indiana Workers' Compensation Board say Kemper should be covering the costs of injured workers such as Burtless. Lawyers for Kemper say Bethlehem stopped paying premiums on its backup policy more than a year before Burtless was hurt, and so the insurer is not responsible. Indiana has a law that bans health providers from trying to collect from injured workers. But because Burtless was rushed across state lines to Illinois for treatment, it's not clear that those protections apply.
The upshot is that Loyola, Superior Air Ground Ambulance of Elmhurst, Ill., and even local St. Anthony hospital are all dunning Burtless to pay for his care. Their bills come to $92,075.10 — an amount, Burtless said, he can't possibly hope to meet.
Back to the Factory
To save money in the months after his discharge from Loyola, Burtless decided to forgo the $200-a-day medical dressings the doctors had ordered for his legs. Instead, he bought Pampers and boiled them to make a sort of papier-mache that he used to swathe his burns.
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