CAMBRIA — There is no playbook for how to deal with a tragedy as serious as the explosion that rocked the Didion Milling plant on Cambria’s south side on the evening of May 31, killing five people and injuring several others.
But when the management team gathered shortly after the explosion, they made an early decision that has been at the core of everything that has transpired in the ensuing two months. They decided they would “lead with our heart first,” Didion President Riley Didion said.
“If we were truly going to be a family, we knew we would have to move through this process together,” Didion said.
Didion Milling processes corn for ethanol and other uses. It has been a family-owned company for 45 years, at its peak handling 28 million bushels of corn per year.
The plant has slowly been getting back to business and has achieved several early milestones that have been a big deal to employees.
“One was the raising of the flag (at the plant); another was when you started to see steam coming out of the ethanol plant, knowing that it was operational again,” Didion said. “And today (July 25) we started to receive corn. All of these things are a little like you are learning to walk again.”
The investigation as to why the explosion occurred is still ongoing. The plant was cited in January 2011 for exposing its workers to dust explosion hazards and the company paid a $3,465 fine, but the case was closed in September 2013 and there have been no citations since then.
“The federal investigation by the (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has a six-month time frame, so we are still well in the middle of that,” said Derrick Clark, vice president of operations. “Interviews have been conducted of probably half of our staff. We’re evaluating the options for the rebuild, including building on space that can be cleared so reconstruction can begin prior to the conclusion of the investigation. It’s an undefined time frame for us right now.”
Didion said company officials are hoping the reconstruction project will be completed in 18 to 24 months, although some of the project will undoubtedly be done sooner. Insurance will cover most of the losses, but as the company upgrades some of its technology and rebuilds in a different way, the firm will have to pay for those changes.
“It’s more complicated than I ever realized it could be,” Clark said. “We can see the beginning but I don’t know that we can see the end point with any great deal of clarity. But we have enough information to reasonably assure us that we can begin the rebuild process.”
After the explosion, the management team gave all employees a week off to be with their families and their work teams. When they came back to work the company spent a lot of time getting the employees together in small groups to reconnect the team.
“In the first five weeks we had three all-company meetings,” Didion said. “We felt that was part of the grieving process, having everybody be together. You also provide space, because everybody is going to move through this grieving process differently. There were some who said I need a couple more days to figure out how I’m going to work through this, and that was OK.”
Clark said it was apparent in the aftermath of the disaster how the Didion team and the community had come together.
“All of these connections became really apparent as we started to debrief and grieve a little bit,” Clark said.
“We definitely do not have a cookie-cutter approach here,” said Aisha Bachlani, marketing and communications manager. “It’s very tailored, very customized for what each individual needs. That’s what makes us who we are.
“We’re remembering what happened but yet focusing on the future. That message has been consistent. While we respect everyone’s grieving process, we’re excited about rebuilding the future. We want our teams to be excited about that, too.”
Bachlani was in week four in her position at Didion when the explosion occurred. She had to either be the company spokesperson or orchestrate the response to a multitude of media inquiries.
“It was a whirlwind, there’s no doubt,” Bachlani said. “But I wouldn’t take it back. I totally feel like I was meant to be here. It’s been amazing to get to know our team and see it grow and learn everyone’s personalities. Thankfully, we had a strong and amazing team to guide me along the way. It wasn’t just me.”
Didion said company officials will often get questions from outside the organization about whether the employees are “putting on a show” in the aftermath of the disaster.
“I don’t know how you fake culture, especially after something like this” he said. “I think we’ve all gotten to see everyone’s true colors. You’ve seen everybody in our team in all emotions. But that’s the great thing about a team — everybody picks you up and you get through it.”
“You all grieve together,” Clark said.
Didion Milling had 220 employees before the explosion and didn’t lay anyone off in its aftermath, despite the disruption of normal business processes.
“If you had no connection to the people, you might say, ‘The mill isn’t running, let’s lay off those people and get right back to business,’ ” Didion said. “Those aren’t the decisions we made. You can’t go through this and say, ‘We have this great family environment,’ and then say, ‘We don’t need these 100 people anymore.’ We chose to lead with our heart.”
The Cambria and Columbia County community has rallied around the company and provided jobs for those displaced by the explosion. Amy Jones, head of human development, said Didion Milling has developed partnerships with other employers in the area in the aftermath of the incident.
“If we don’t have meaningful work for people, we’re helping them find work at other employers in the area while they stay on our payroll,” Jones said. “It’s kind of a loaned employee situation. There generally are many more jobs than people in this area right now, so the silver lining is there’s a lot of work out there to do. There’s been no shortage of jobs for our people to do in the interim while we rebuild.”
Jones said an outside trauma counselor was brought on site the week after the incident, and the counselor had experience helping people work through tragedies such as the explosion.
“This counselor was at 9/11 (in New York City) and the Oklahoma City bombing, so he had a lot of experience in disaster situations,” Jones said. “A trailer was set up here for employees and we extended it to first responders and others in the community. So anybody who needed help got it immediately. That was really important to us.
“Whenever there is a decision facing the executive team, the very first question is how will this affect people. And then we go from there. We have one leg in the grieving process and the other leg in the rebuild, so we’re doing both at the same time. But clearly we will never forget the five employees who passed away here.”
Didion Milling uses its dry corn mill to fractionate corn prior to sending it to its on-site ethanol plant, and also produces corn-soy blends, corn meal, grits and corn flour for the U.S. food industry. At some times of the year, as many as 200 semis deliver corn to the plant in a day.
Didion said company managers have been making plans for what Didion Milling will look like in the future.
“One thing we want the community to know is we’re not going anywhere,” Didion said. “We’re going to come back, even though (our plant) is going to look different than it did before.”
Didion described the community response to the incident as “unbelievable.”
“The people didn’t owe us anything, but the number of benefit dinners they did and the fundraisers they hosted has been unbelievable for those affected,” he said.
Didion’s customers have also remained loyal, Clark said, staying in touch with company officials so they know when corn can be delivered to the plant again.
Didion said the management team held an all-company “vision casting” in February to look ahead to what the company will look like in five years.
“I would say to our team that none of that has changed,” he said. “Some of the time frames may change, but we believe the strong growth we have experienced the last five or six years will continue.
“You can stay in the dysfunction (of a tragic situation) or you can choose to move on. It doesn’t mean you forget, it doesn’t mean you are betraying the memory of those who died because you want to take a step forward. Whether we like it not, tomorrow will come. We’ve all chosen to move toward that future.”