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Special Reports

Force of fortitude

By Gretchen Salois

Above: TRUMPF team working on recovery efforts.

Preparing for the unforeseen comes full circle as a tragic accident pulls one community together

November 2021 - In Farmington, Connecticut, the factory floor in Building 2 hummed with activity. Production Manager Matthieu Prou was on his usual rounds, walking up and down the six aisles of TRUMPF Inc. as workers and machines processed sheet metal components for the manufacturer’s fabrication machinery. At approximately 10 a.m., he made his way down the last aisle and noticed a machine at the end of the aisle on fire. He smiled at a passing employee and thought, ‘What are my guys doing now?’ But before he could get any closer, a huge explosion knocked him and the employee to the ground. Now completely in the dark and with flames behind them, he pulled her away from the blast and they ran out of the building along with the rest of the nearly 100 employees in the facility.

A small twin-engine Cessna airplane carrying four passengers had careened into the building, killing everyone on board. For reasons still under investigation, the plane had crashed into the ground, propelling it into the back side of the facility near the laser cutting and bending stations. “There was a loud bang at first, followed by some smoke, and then the plane’s engine fuel caught fire, causing an immense explosion,” says Peter Hoecklin, president and CEO. Two employees were injured as a result of the incident. “We were very, very fortunate. It could have been much, much worse for TRUMPF’s employees.”

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The first officers on the scene reported a plane was fully engulfed in flames after striking the building. Photo: Jim Altman FOX61

The quick thinking of TRUMPF managers and employees to evacuate the building made all the difference. Firefighters and police officers arrived and quickly worked to put out the fire and make sure everyone was safe.

“I was struck by how organized our first responders were and how adept they were at handling the situation,” says Burke Doar, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “They were on the scene quickly, and everyone knew what their role was and how to go about handling various responsibilities. It was a comfort during a chaotic period.”

Homeland Security also quickly arrived at the accident site. “In fact, I remember one of the first people I met was from Homeland Security,” Hoecklin says. “That surprised me at first but then as I thought about it, when a plane hits a building, there is a 20-year-old scar that everyone thinks about.”

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Factory floor in Building 2.

Meanwhile, TRUMPF’s HR team facilitated contact to employees’ families, by sharing cell phones. “People rushed out leaving behind cell phones, car keys—we wanted to make sure everyone could communicate with loved ones that they were OK,” Doar says.

On any given day, different personnel may be on site, including vendors. “We gathered everyone away from the fire and conducted different head counts,” he notes. TRUMPF HR checked badging records to ensure that anyone working in Building 2 made it out safely away from the crash site. As workers waited, TRUMPF provided seating, food and as many answers as they could offer their employees in the aftermath.

“After we had made sure everyone was accounted for, we made sure they would make it home alright,” Hoecklin says. “This was the Thursday before Labor Day weekend. We reassured everyone that they would be paid but asked our employees from Building 2 not to come in until the Tuesday after the holiday weekend so we could take a moment and figure out what to do next.”

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First responders were at the scene almost immediately. Photo: Mark Mirko; Copyright 2021. Hartford Courant. Used with permission.

Up and running

While many in the U.S. relaxed during the Labor Day weekend, a small group of TRUMPF employees came into work to help plan and set up temporary work stations. “We cleared up space in different parts of our facilities and installed new electrical and gas lines to set up a temporary sheet metal fabrication shop,” Hoecklin says. “We had service engineers come in to start installing machines. It was really incredible that employees offered to come in and work during that holiday weekend.”

Doar was struck by the efficiency and speed in which the FAA conducted its investigation so that the facility could be given back to TRUMPF to rebuild. “The FAA worked night and day through the long weekend gathering evidence, while local authorities confirmed Building 2 was safe,” says Doar. “In the days after, the police had procedures in place to help workers safely retrieve belongings left behind that they were unable to collect the day of the accident.”

When employees arrived on Tuesday, management had a plan in place to divide Building 2 employees into different teams to begin the long process of cleaning and rebuilding.

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Witnesses reported a Cessna Citation 560XL hit the ground and slid into TRUMPF’s Farmington factory. Photo: Mark Mirko; Copyright 2021. Hartford Courant. Used with permission.

Rebuilding

“Building 2 consists of six production bays. The first two were the worst affected,” explains Hoecklin. Machines that were not damaged directly by the fire were cloaked in debris or flooded with fire extinguishing fluids. Fortunately, there was no water or fire damage in the last three bays. TRUMPF hired professional cleaning crews to help with the recovery effort. “The final assembly area is located furthest away from the fire damage but was still affected by a lot of soot and smoke. There is a lot of cleaning to do,” he says.

As of the end of September, employees were able to reenter a portion of Building 2. Temporary partitions separate the damaged part of the building from the unaffected bays. Operators are back to cutting sheet metal in another building. Plans continue as leadership considers how to make the best of a tragic situation. “Once we were able to create temporary work stations, we could take a step back and consider where opportunities for improvement lie,” Hoecklin says.

As repairs and cleanup continue, work has resumed and employees are busy. TRUMPF provided counseling to employees immediately after the accident and continues to keep lines of communication open for workers coping with any anxiety related to the accident. “In addition to counseling, we’ve found that our managers’ ability to just listen to employees recount their experiences as many times as needed is a great help,” Doar says. “Some people work through things by talking about it, others keep it close to themselves—whatever way allows people to cope, we want to do what we can to be there and listen.”

The outpouring of help from the surrounding community bolstered spirits. “We received tremendous support from our employees as well as our customers, suppliers and our community—it’s given us a lot of strength and courage,” Hoecklin says.

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Repairs to the building’s exterior are under way.

TRUMPF appreciated the kind words from competitors as well. “We’re all fiercely competitive when it comes to business but while going through this, it was nice to hear from some of our competition that they were thinking of us,” Doar says.

Going above and beyond, local TRUMPF customers offered up their own facilities and available shifts. “Local customers that have been using our equipment for years told us, ‘Please come in, use our equipment if you need to, anything we can do to help,’” Hoecklin says. “We’ve experienced firsthand how people come together in times of tragedy.”

While TRUMPF works to rebuild, the effects of the plane crash are likely to linger a while longer. “To the physical structure, we have to replace the roof on a large part of the building as well as reconstruct the section most damaged by the impact of the jet and the resulting fire,” Hoecklin says. “We will be dealing with effects of this accident for a long time.

“We had record order books going before this crash.” he continues. “We’ve restarted operations, and are working hard to reduce the impact on our operations. At the same time, we’re looking at how to rebuild things better.”

Preparedness is important. “It’s never easy to look around the corner and know what is going to happen,” Doar says. “We practice our drills and have protocols in place in case of an emergency, but you hope you never need it. We will go back and examine our response to continue to learn and ensure we are prepared. It’s our duty because, remember, we have a big responsibility. We take our employees’ welfare very seriously.”  FFJ

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