Former Port High football star injured in horrific foundry blast returns to his family after nearly two months in hospital
Jeff Jankowski — a former star athlete at Port Washington High School — has been a fixture at Johnson Brass and Machine Foundry in Saukville for 26 years, rising to the position of foundry supervisor.
Still, all of those years of experience never prepared him for what unfolded on Monday, May 19.
On that rainy day, Jankowski and three other Johnson Brass foundry workers were seriously injured in a production blast. One remains hospitalized.
The names of the other victims have not been released because of HIPPA restrictions, but Jankowski said the four men had more than 100 years of combined experience with the company.
Jankowski was supervising a bronze pour into a centrifuge from a 20-foot platform in the plant’s big bay, when something went horrifically wrong.
During a routine pour, which is called a shot at the plant, the centrifuge spins at up to 460 revolutions per minute, forming the die-cast parts. That process is repeated as often as 10 times a day.
The circumstances surrounding Jankowski’s last shot were hardly routine.
“I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say it was an explosion. I wish I knew what happened,” he said this week from his Cedarburg home.
“I saw the die was spinning off-center and reached my arms up to shield my head just when the platform collapsed.”
Company officials, the state fire marshal’s office and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators have reportedly been unable to pin down what caused the centrifuge to shear off the 12 bolts that fastened it to the plant floor. That caused the platform on which Jankowski was standing to tumble and splatter 2,100-degree molten metal about the shop.
“I never lost consciousness, but the EMTs must have given me something as they were loading me onto Flight for Life. The next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital,” Jankowski said.
That hospital was the Burn Center at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee. As it turned out, Jankowski would receive intensive medical attention at the center until the first week in July.
Severe burns over much of his body required extensive skin grafting. A gash to the back of his head needed 12 surgical staples to close.
“Pretty much the only part that wasn’t burned was my face, and that was only because I was wearing a ventilator mask,” Jankowski said.
His wife, Connie, said they were told Jeff’s clothing was still on fire when Saukville rescue personnel arrived to care for him.
To hold the grafted skin in place, the medical staff had to use 500 more staples because bandages would have adhered to the transplanted skin.
“I have been through a lot, but removing those staples was the worst. That process took three days, because it would get to a point where I couldn’t take anymore in a day,” Jankowski said.
“It takes a special kind of person to work in a burn center. I would be lying there at night and hear other patients screaming as the dressings on their burns were being changed.”
He said during the first days after the blast, he had nightmares that replayed the incident in his head. They gradually stopped.
Daily home visits by a physical therapist keep Jankowski pushing to regain strength and flexibility, but bandages and large patches of graphed skin remind him that there is healing to be done.
The recovery process has been excruciatingly slow, especially for Jankowski, who has lived a very active lifestyle up until the accident.
“I am used to playing softball three nights a week,” he said.
When he isn’t swinging for the fences on the softball field, Jankowski and his wife are very active with youth sports — coaching wrestling, football and volleyball.
Their kids, Max, 17, Bryce, 11, and Aspen, 10, keep the couple in perpetual motion.
Returning to that hectic pace is going to take time and perseverance.
Jankowski has lost 40 pounds, a lot of it muscle, largely because he was unable to eat solid food for 45 days following the accident.
He was a powerfully built multi-sport athlete at Port High, earning recognition as North Shore Conference Player of the Year as a running back on the Pirate football team in 1988. He scored 21 touchdowns and rushed for 1,061 yards his senior year.
Jankowski graduated from Port in 1989.
Because he was hurt on the job, workers compensation insurance is covering virtually all of his medical bills. Otherwise the expenses would have been staggering, the couple said.
“Jeff’s care, including that long stay in the burn center, would easily cost $1 million when it is all added up. The bill for the Flight for Life alone was $17,000,” Connie said.
The Jankowskis said they have been especially overwhelmed by the generosity of the community in reaching out to the family following the accident.
“It is impossible to remember everyone who has offered anything we needed, but the kind of response we have experienced is why we choose to live in a community like Ozaukee County,” Connie said.
The families of teammates on their children’s various sports teams have offered help without hesitation, as have their fellow parishioners from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grafton.
“I haven’t had to cut our lawn since the accident,” Connie said. Other helpers even cleaned the gutters on their home.
Classmates from Connie’s Cedarburg High School Class of 1988 started a food train to make sure the family was well fed while she spent time with Jeff recovering in the burn center.
“It got to the point where we kept a cooler by the door where people could drop off food. I would come home and there would be food waiting,” Connie said.
Proceeds from the recent Mel’s Slow-Pitch Softball Tournament in Grafton were also shared with the family.
“What really struck me, though, were the cards we got from people we didn’t even know, offering their prayers and even gift cards,” Connie said.
Despite those inspiring moments, she said the accident has been tough on their children.
“Our kids were just devastated. Our family does everything together, I mean everything, and it has been really tough on Jeff to miss their games,” Connie said.
Jankowski said he is grateful for all the help, but said he can’t wait to get back to taking care of his own family.
“I just want things to get back to normal,” he said.
That new normal, however, is not likely to include working on the foundry floor.
It is a physically demanding job, and Jankowski admitted he has doubts whether he is up to the demands of directing the pouring of molten metal.
“The people at Johnson Brass have been great, but working in a foundry is very dangerous work. I hope to find another job there, but I don’t think I want to work in the foundry,” Jankowski said.
Image information: JOHNSON BRASS FOUNDRY worker Jeff Jankowski at home with his son Bryce, wife Connie and daughter Aspen. Photo by Mark Jaeger