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Continued: For veterans, North Dakota oil fields have become the next deployment

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 9, 2013 - 10:46 PM

Edgren could see chains falling from the crane’s main and whip lines. He yelled that the crane’s boom was coming down before blacking out.

The collapsing crane tossed him against a metal shipping container that protected him as if he were under a bridge. Two other men were knocked out nearby. “Initially I thought they were dead because they were not moving,” Lewis said.

He ran to get a stretcher and someone called for a helicopter. Then came the good news: Edgren came to, suffering only a bruised hip and side. An ambulance zipped him to a hospital in Williston. The other two men also survived.

Lewis watched as the helicopter took off and the ambulance bounced away with his friend, its lights flashing. “I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I almost felt that it was.”

Thirty-seven workers have died on oil-related jobs in western North Dakota the last four years. That toll is roughly half the workplace fatalities the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Bismarck office has investigated in both Dakotas since Oct. 1, 2009.

OSHA fined Halliburton $14,000 for the death of Mike Krajewski, 49, a Duluth father of three and Air Force veteran killed in January when a fracking pipe struck his head.

Edgren dislikes talking about the crane. Dangerous things are better left unsaid. “In Afghanistan, I told my wife I worked behind a desk and never went outside the wire.”

This was different. “We trained eight months for Afghanistan and were constantly waiting for something to happen because we knew it would,” Edgren said. “The crane collapse was so scary because I didn’t expect it. I was in shock and only later realized how close I was to dying.”

Man camp to dream house

Starting their second year out here, both work and living conditions are improving for Lewis and Edgren — like they are for many of the workers in North Dakota’s latest oil boom.

They left crane rigging for a job fueling frac trucks for Thomas Petroleum. And with it, they upgraded from cheap burritos and vodka.

For most of the spring and summer, they found a home at the Black Gold Lodge, a man-camp labyrinth of dimly lit metal hallways, shared bathrooms and shoebox-size sleeping quarters built out of shipping containers north of town.

Employers such as Thomas Petroleum fork out $140 a night for each worker to Black Gold — an Alaska-based oil-field logistics firm — to house and feed its workers three meals a day. The man camp houses up to 400 workers.

Some man camps live up to Old West stereotypes, with booze, brawls and prostitutes. Black Gold is all business.

A guard’s shack prohibits unregistered guests from entering the dirt parking lot. Anyone caught with visitors or alcohol in his room is given the steel-toed boot.

Edgren and Lewis usually saw each other every day.

Their rooms were a few doors apart, so even though they often worked opposite shifts, they’d grab a few minutes to talk as Lewis got off his 12-hour night shift on a drilling site near Alexander, N.D., and Edgren headed off to work at dawn.

They work more than 100 hours a week, earning $20 an hour for the first 40 hours and then bringing in time-and-a-half for the next 60-plus.

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