One week after an explosion reduced a Waukegan factory to rubble, more than 100 people gathered at the site Friday morning to remember the four employees killed by the blast -- and to praise them as heroes.
Friends, relatives and co-workers of the victims came together outside the chain link fence surrounding the badly damaged AB Specialty Silicones plant at 3790 Sunset Ave., near the Gurnee border. The crowd was so big it occupied a section of nearby Northwestern Avenue.
The blast occurred about 9:30 p.m. May 3 and could be felt many miles away. It killed Beach Park resident Daniel Nicklas and Wisconsin residents Jeff Cummings, Byron H. Biehn and Allen Stevens. Three people were injured.
The casualty count could've been higher, officials have said, if it weren't for the work of some of the deceased, who helped evacuate the building and get other workers to safety.
Waukegan Fire Chief George Bridges Jr. described them as heroes "who didn't even bring their capes" to work that day.
Four wreaths of white flowers were placed on stands near the fence line to honor the victims. A few people brought bouquets to the site, too.
People hugged each other and shared tears. Many quietly stared at the destroyed building for a few seconds before turning away.
"This is terrible," one man said as he looked at the wreckage. "This is terrible."
In addition to Bridges, company General Manager Mac Penman, Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham and Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper were among the speakers Friday.
Penman recalled how May 3 started normally.
"There will never be another normal work day," he said.
Penman called this past week the hardest of his life.
"We have lost our friends and colleagues," he continued. "But the families have lost fathers, sons, husbands and brothers."
Cooper thanked the crowd for the blessings people have shared with his staff and with other emergency personnel, as well as the food they provided to crews on the sene.
He said Friday's assembly was about healing and rebuilding.
"And I cannot lie -- it's hard," he told the crowd.
Two clergy members talked to the crowd and led the group in prayer, both trying to give comfort to the many people grieving and looking for answers because of the tragedy.
The Rev. David Adams repeated a phrase his mother used to motivate him after a setback.
"This is where we are. This is where we start," Adams said.
Authorities believe the explosion resulted from a processing accident within the silicone factory. It remains under investigation.
Penman said the families of the victims have encouraged him to rebuild the factory. When he said the company should rebuild, the crowd applauded.
Cunningham later told Penman that Waukegan and Lake County will be his partners when he rebuilds the business.