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Big Blue collapses: 15 years later

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Photo: Video by wtmj.com

Big Blue collapses: 15 years later

By Doug Russell. CREATED Jul 14, 2014

July 14, 1999 began just like any other mid-year day in Wisconsin. Sunny and warm, it was summer in Milwaukee.

But at 5:12 p.m., during the heart of rush hour, disaster struck at Milwaukee’s still-under construction baseball cathedral, Miller Park. 

Along the first base line, as the giant Lampson crane nicknamed “Big Blue” was attempting to lift a section of the retractable roof into place, it collapsed.  It draped its twisted steel over the façade of the ballpark like a giant blue shirt you might throw over a chair to air dry.

As the crane was falling from the sky, tragedy struck.

“We had about 600 tons on the hook,” construction worker Mike Ellis told then-WTMJ anchor Cheri Preston, the first reporter on the scene. 

“We were almost ready to go up there and put it together, and the Lampson, the big blue crane, just started snapping. I don’t really know what happened to it. It just started leaning over and fell. It took another crane with it.

“I watched three men die.”

Those three, Jeffrey Wischer, William DeGrave, and Jerome Starr were killed when their man-basket that was suspended in the air was hit by the falling crane.

Preston was only there first as a matter of the happenstance of being at nearby Marquette University when she heard the first report of the accident from then-WTMJ airborne traffic reporter Tom Carr.

She was speechless.

“I was completely stunned when he said that,” Preston, now a national anchor for ABC Radio News, says today. “I didn’t know what to ask him next. I mean, what do you ask somebody next when he says he had just watched three men die?”

Wind gusts of up to 27 miles per hour were primarily blamed for the collapse; the investigation into the accident revealed that workers had expressed deep reservations about doing the roof pick because of the high wind speeds that day, but their concerns were not heeded.

The Brewers postponed their game the next day against Kansas City, both out of respect to the three lives lost, as well as to ensure the site was secure and no fans attending games at County Stadium could be injured.

When the club resumed playing, they added a commemorative Ironworkers Local 8 patch on their uniforms. Before the team resumed playing, those that were lost were remembered with a moment of silence prior to the first pitch.

The damage to Miller Park was estimated at around $100 million dollars and the stadium’s opening date was pushed back a year. The families of the three victims eventually reached an undisclosed settlement with the construction companies.

They have remained publicly silent on the matter in the years since.

Doug Russell

Doug Russell

A 1990 graduate of Waukesha North and 1995 graduate of UW-Oshkosh, Doug has a wide and varied sports media background.