Conn. firefighter who saved flag from ruins of deadly blast in 2010 to participate in memorial

The tattered flag has come to represent all state workers who die on the job, thanks to its rescuer, Middletown Firefighter Kevin Starbird

By Don Stacom
Hartford Courant

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Survivors and labor leaders who have been gathering for the annual memorial near the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown will bring something new to this year’s ceremony Sunday: The flag that was flying overhead when a gas explosion killed six workers.

Firefighters saved the battered flag just days after the horrendous blast shook the city in 2010, and as of last spring, it has come to memorialize all Connecticut workers who die on the job. Gov. Ned Lamont proclaimed it the Connecticut Workers Memorial Flag.

A gas explosion killed six people at Kleen Energy in Connecticut in 2010.
A gas explosion killed six people at Kleen Energy in Connecticut in 2010. (File photo/Bettina Hansen/Tribune News Service)

“I feel honored to be part of this,” said Middletown Firefighter Kevin Starbird, who is scheduled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at Sunday’s ceremony.

Organizers gave that role to Starbird, a department veteran and union leader, because he is the firefighter who rescued the damaged flag by leaning out the bucket of a fully extended 100-foot truck ladder.

“I remember there was a piece of an extended I-beam from the top floor — the flag was hanging from zip ties on a piece of rebar off the I-beam,” Starbird recalled Wednesday.

The flag had survived the massive explosion that rattled houses 10 miles away and cracked foundations on the other side of the Connecticut River.

The blast hit on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday in 2010, and Starbird was among the firefighters who spent the next several days working to prevent more damage.

Starbird’s assignment was to take safety workers up the side of the building in the bucket of a fire ladder truck to collect tanks of propane or acetylene. The potentially damaged tanks were brought down in the bucket and hauled away.

Starbird still had a propane tank in the bucket when he received direction to try to bring down the flag, which was hanging from the building’s framework 100 feet up.

“I went up, I could touch the base of the rebar, but not the flag. The bucket was swaying. It wasn’t until I stood on propane tank in the bucket that I could bend the rebar down, get the flag in and cut the zip ties,” Starbird said.

The flag went into storage for years, but last year was mounted on a base and donated to the AFL-CIO offices in Rocky Hill.

In the months after the explosion, Starbird worked with volunteers on pasta dinners, a motorcycle raffle and other fundraisers that generated about $120,000 for the families of the six victims.

Starbird regularly attends the annual ceremonies, and credits organizer Paul Venti for keeping the tradition alive.

“Paul is one of the most amazing guys you’ll ever see,” he said.

Venti, who had been a union steward at Kleen Energy in 2010, travels from Florida every January to organize the gatherings on River Road near the plant.

Last year, Venti and Kyle Zimmer, a union safety official who worked on the search-and-rescue mission right after the blast, took part in a ceremony where Lamont officially made the flag a memorial for all workers in Connecticut who die on the job.

“He made it the flag for all workers — from Kleen Energy, L’Ambience Plaza, everywhere,” Venti said.

Venti considers the annual gathering on River Road as a celebration of life rather than a memorial and urges attendees to campaign for stronger worker safety protections in all industries.

Venti, a close friend of one of the victims, said better protection for workers is vital.

“There’s history in this. That flag is going to tell a story long after we’re gone, it’s about safety and the people we lost,” Venti said this week. “Everybody should come home the same way they went to work in the morning.”

He also advocates for stiffer penalties for contractors and other companies that skirt safety regulations.

“All the safety stuff they preach at the beginning of the job is out the window when they get behind schedule. I’ve seen it 1,000 times,” he said.

This year’s ceremony begins at 11 a.m. near the memorial at 1349 River Road. Speakers will include Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim and Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne.

©2023 Hartford Courant.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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