WEIRTON - Eight-year-old Earl Tuttle couldn't understand why his mother and sister were standing at his Liberty Elementary classroom door on a January day in 1963.
"I knew something was wrong but I wasn't sure why the teacher was fussing with my coat. Then my mom told me there had been in accident in the mill and my dad was involved," Tuttle related Thursday morning at the Steelworkers Memorial service in Weirton.
"My mom took my sister and I home and then she went to the hospital. It was my sister's birthday so my aunt rounded up some of the Weirton Heights neighborhood kids and brought them to our house for a birthday party," he continued.
REMEMBERING HIS FATHER — Earl Tuttle leans forward to read his father’s name on the Weirton Steelworker Memorial wall Thursday. Ira Gene Tuttle died in 1963 after he suffered burns to more than 70 percent of his body following an explosion and fire in the Open Hearth department. Tuttle told an audience at the annual Steelworkers Memorial Day service to be careful at work and at home. -- Dave Gossett
"At 1:30 the next morning my dad mercifully passed away from the 70 percent burns that covered his body. In those days there were no special burn units. So he was given morphine and watched while he suffered. When my mom came home she had a strange smell on her clothes I still remember to this day. It was the smell of disinfectant and burnt flesh," Tuttle explained quietly.
"The next day was a very long day of visitors. There were men in suits who I think were probably Weirton Steel bosses and the union officials who brought us a Bible," said Tuttle.
"Fast forward to 1977. I had fought against the idea of going to work in the steel mill but I had a wife and a child on the way. I really tried to stay out of the mill but in 1977 I came down and got a job. I was working construction labor and one day a janitor called me over and asked if I knew Gene Tuttle," Tuttle said.
"I told him Ira Gene Tuttle was my dad. That janitor told me he was there the day my dad was injured and explained to me what happened. That was the wild west of the steel industry in those days. There were cars and buggies constantly moving around, bells and whistles and molten steel being created," Tuttle described.
"My grandfather and uncles all worked in the Open Hearth department and they all had skin patches where they had been burnt. They wore the protective silver suits but they were working around 2,600-degree steel and getting burnt was a way of life. But the men wanted to bring money home for their families so they went to work every day," Tuttle continued.
"My dad ran a charging machine. He dumped the material into the small furnaces in the Open Hearth that was used to create the steel. On that day he had just dumped a load of limestone into the furnace. But the limestone was wet and it turned to steam and exploded. That caught the charging machine on fire and the machine controls were burnt. My dad was able to run the control and bring the machine out of the fire twice but both times the controls then failed and the machine went back into the fire. The other men working there were finally able to get the power shut off and got him out of the fire. That is what it was like working in the steel mill and the Open Hearth in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s," stated Tuttle.
"There were no ball games with my dad, no father and son talks, no bouncing his grandchildren on his knee. I never really knew my dad. I wanted to give you a little history today. The mill is still a dangerous place today. We assume a risk coming to work. But you assumed a risk when you got out of bed and came here today. My dad and everyone on this memorial wall assumed a risk to take money home to their family. I encourage everyone here today, whether it is at work or at home, to stop before doing a job, look around and listen," concluded Tuttle.
The names of all 117 men who were fatally injured in the steel plant were slowly read by Bob Hoover and Bon Macek, both steelworkers and area church pastors.
A bell was rung after each name was pronounced and a bagpiper slowly played "Amazing Grace" to mark the end of the hour-long ceremony.
"This was very sad and moving today. I knew a lot of the guys who are listed on the memorial wall. I grew up with Dave Burskey whose father died in the blast furnace department in 1958. And I knew Bob Pitcock who died in 1992," commented retired steelworker and Hancock County Commissioner Danny Greathouse.
"I drive past this memorial wall every morning on my way to work. And this memorial really inspires me. I think of the 117 men who passed away and I hope and pray we do not have to add an additional name to this wall," remarked United Steelworkers Local 2911 President Mark Glyptis.
"We are asking anyone who has a family member listed on the memorial wall who would share their personal story next year to please contact me at the union hall. It is so important for others to share their personal stories. We can never forget those who died while working in the steel mill," said Local 2911 Safety and Health Coordinator Mike Jacobs.
(Gossett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)