Workers Injured In Kleen Energy Plant Still Waiting For Millions They've Been Awarded

Hartford Courant
Dave Altimari
February 17, 2017

As he walked up the stairs of the main building of the under-construction Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown on the morning of Feb. 7, 2010, Timothy Hilliker could hear natural gas pumping through the above-ground piping system.

"It was incredibly loud," Hilliker said as he sat at the dining room table of his Glastonbury home Thursday. "Then we started smelling gas and the smell kept getting stronger and that is when alarm bells go off for me."

An electrician by trade, Hilliker and his crew of six were ready to start work but instead were told to wait because a "gas blow," a procedure to clean debris from pipes, was taking place.

As the smell of gas grew Hilliker made a decision that may have saved his life: he told his crew he was going back to the trailer to wait for the signal to start working rather than stand around inside the main building.

"We got back to the trailer and ordered a pizza and we were just sitting in our office when it happened. In a snap of a finger everything changed," Hilliker said. "Everyone knew it was an explosion."

The blast killed six people and injured as many as 60, including Hilliker who suffered severe head injuries when he was blown against the ceiling of the trailer.

Now, more than seven years later, Hilliker is among a group of 22 people, 17 employees and five spouses, who are waiting for the millions they were awarded more than a year ago.

An arbitrator ruled in January 2016 that the employees and their families are owed $34,385,426. The arbitrator found Keystone Construction, the company hired by general contractor O&G Industries to install, test and flush the piping system, strictly liable for the explosion.

Hilliker and his wife, Stacey, are owed the second highest amount of $5.27 million, according to court records. The arbitrator's awards range from $5.5 million to $377,240.

In addition, the arbitrator ruled 33 homeowners whose properties were damaged are owed $614,674, according to court records.

They have also not received the money.

That's because The North River Insurance Company, which holds a $15 million insurance policy with Keystone Construction, filed a federal lawsuit in March 2013 arguing it didn't have to pay off the policy.

North River is arguing that Keystone breached the terms of the insurance contract by "not cooperating, communicating, and being honest" with North River as Keystone sought insurance coverage in the aftermath of the explosion.

North River claims that underlying umbrella policies of at least $51 million that O&G had to cover all subcontractors has not yet been exhausted and that Keystone and O&G colluded "in an effort to wrongfully exhaust underlying insurance."

The injured workers are caught in the middle of that dispute, awaiting whether North River wins its case or is ordered to pay Keystone the $15 million policy. The workers could then seek additional damages that would cover some of the $20 million difference between the insurance policy and arbitrator's final awards.

Hartford attorney R. Cornelius Danaher, who is representing North River, could not be reached for comment.

New Haven attorney Joel Faxon, who represents the injured workers, said North River is "completely abdicated its responsibility to its insured Keystone and the injured workers who were harmed in the explosion" by refusing to cover their liability.

"These men and women were all hard working union members whose lives have been horribly ruined," Faxon said. "A Connecticut jury will see through North River's corporate greed and render an appropriate verdict to compensate my clients for their life-altering losses and assess punitive damages for their reckless misconduct."

Lawsuit Brings New Details

The gas blow on Feb. 7 was the second one in a little more than a week at the Middletown plant. The blow or purge is supposed to clean out debris from the pipes.

The natural gas used to clean the pipes was discharged into a courtyard behind the main building. Investigators found that the vent pipes were placed in a horizontal position, so the gas built up in the courtyard, rather than dispersing into the atmosphere.

Investigators determined that before the explosion, enough gas built up in the courtyard to fill a basketball arena. With multiple possible ignition sources — welding work, nearby space heaters, a spark from the blown-out debris — investigators never determined what caused the explosion.

But as the North River lawsuit has wound its way through federal court, documents filed as part of the suit have provided new details.

For instance, documents indicate officials from the state government's Connecticut Gas Pipeline Unit contacted Kleen Energy and O&G officials two days before the first gas blow, on Jan. 30, 2010, warning them against using natural gas.

The state recommended they do the gas blow with either nitrogen or compressed air. They reiterated that recommendation days before the second, fatal gas blow on Feb. 7.

There were 144 employees from 17 different contractors on site when the series of gas blows started on Feb. 7. There was a 6 a..m. walk through that included representatives of O&G, Keystone and Bluewater Energy Solutions.

All potential ignition sources were supposedly turned off and the pipes and valves where the gas would vent were all inspected, records show. The first series of blows were completed at 10:30 a.m.

"At the completion of the first blow there was a strong smell of gas and north side doors were opened for ventilation. At the same time Christopher Walters, who was in control of the gas meter, recorded a reading above acceptable limits. Walters left to find a supervisor, it was about 11 a.m.," said a 2011 report filed by attorneys for North River.

Although federal investigators have said the ignition source is unknown, the North River report concludes the source was a portable heater belonging to O&G that was left on.

Lifted Off The Ground

Six people were killed in the blast: Peter Chepulis, 48, of Thomaston; Ronald Crabb, 42, of Colchester; Chris Walters, 48, of Florissant, Mo.; Kenneth Haskell, 37, of New Durham, N.H.; Raymond Dobratz, 58, of Old Saybrook and Roy Rushton, 36, of Hamilton, Ontario.

All but Dobratz settled their lawsuits. Chepulis' estate got $1.7 million and Crabb's $2.5 million, according to probate records.

There were at least 29 lawsuits filed, involving more than 60 people. All of them have been settled except for Faxon's clients.

Hilliker was lifted off the ground by the blast smashing his head into the ceiling tiles, knocking him out.

"I came to after a period of time. One minute I was standing there and the next it was like someone hit me in the head with a telephone pole," Hilliker said. "I don't remember anything about the explosion other than a couple of flashes."

Hilliker and his crew escaped from the trailor, which had nearly been destroyed, and started running toward what was left of the main building.

"I could see right through the building. There was stuff still falling out of the sky that almost crushed me. People had been blown out of the building into the road," Hilliker said. "It looked like the building had exploded from the inside and ripped itself apart or like a giant had smashed his fist through the roof."

Hilliker said he was one of the last workers transported to the hospital. By then the adrenaline had worn off and his whole body ached. His head hurt as if "someone has stuck a nail through it."

On the way to the hospital, emergency technicians removed his shirts and discovered that his ribs were not only broken but also were "sticking up like fingers."

"I just assumed that I was going to die at that point," Hilliker said.

But he was only kept at the hospital until midnight. Hilliker got up at 5 a.m. the next day like he normally did and arrived at work, only to be told to go home. He said he doesn't remember driving back home.

The next few years were spent shuffling from doctor to doctor – he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.

Like other people working that day, he applied for workman's compensation from the state and got some funding. He has not worked since the explosion, voluntarily giving up his electrician's license he had held for more than 20 years.

Hilliker said his ears ring everyday and he has a hard time deciphering where sounds are coming from. His hips, arms, legs and feet are constantly in pain.

Hillker, 43, said his condition will only get worse as he gets older. He cannot work and spends most of his day puttering around his Glastonbury home or going to doctor's appointments.

"I just showed up for work and this just happened," Hilliker said. "I try to make use of my life because I know there are people who aren't here anymore, who never got to go back home and hug their children and their wife."

Hilliker said everyone assumes that those injured during the Kleen Energy explosion have already been compensated.

Besides the high-profile settlements of cases involving those who died, a number of the cases involving those who were injured were settled by a federal judge in April 2012. The settlements have never been revealed.

"We go through the courts and figure out what you are entitled too and you are awarded a sum of money to start your life again and the insurance company is saying your life doesn't mean anything to us," Hilliker said.