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8 Reach $16M Settlement In Wis. Utility Explosion

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MILWAUKEE (AP) - Alex Trevino remembers everything happening at once: the whoosh, the flames, his own panicked screams. And then, an instant later, the pain - an agony so excruciating he was certain he would die.

"All I could think was, oh my god, oh my god, screaming for help, hurting," he said. "It was horrendous. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

Trevino, now 24, was one of several contractors working inside a silo at a Wisconsin power plant in 2009 when coal dust ignited, engulfing him and at least five others in an intense fireball. Four workers suffered second- and third-degree burns, and the explosion slammed several others against a wall.

Trevino was one of eight people who sued the power plant and a contracting firm. The workers and the defendants announced a $16 million settlement on Thursday, the two-year anniversary of the explosion.

"It's not about the money," Trevino told The Associated Press, holding up his scarred hands. "This body, I know it's not me. My appearance, these scars, I know this is not me. There's no amount of money that can ever change that."

His injuries were so severe that after rescuers extinguished the flames on his body by dropping him in a snowbank, his own father standing nearby didn't recognize him.

Trevino suffered deep burns over 65 percent of his body - his hands, face, ear and entire lower body. He endured 17 surgeries and dozens of skin grafts from his arms to his legs. Parts of tattoos from his biceps and torso are now on his lower legs.

"That bothers me," he said quietly. "A lot."

The accident happened at a We Energies plant in Oak Creek, about 20 miles south of Milwaukee. The eight workers filed a civil lawsuit against Wisconsin Electric Power Co., the utility's business entity, and contractor U.S. Fire Protection Inc., which was overseeing the silo work.

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey confirmed the legal settlement and amount to AP. He said the utility, contractors and their insurance companies would now work among themselves to determine how to divide responsibility.

"We did not cause and were not responsible for the accident and plaintiffs' injuries," Manthey said.

A message left with U.S. Fire Protection was not immediately returned.

Also injured was Jeff Ross, now 36, a foreman who had been standing on scaffolding inside the silo when the explosion occurred. His arm caught fire, but as he rolled to extinguish the flames he didn't realize he was rolling in flammable coal dust that was making the problem worse. A colleague saved him by also throwing him into snow.

Ross said he wasn't worried that a jury might have awarded them even more money had the case gone to trial.

"It's just a giant relief that it's over. It's a lot of stress off my shoulders," he said. "I don't care about the money."

Neither he nor Trevino would say how much of the $16 million they were going to receive.

The silo was a dust collector where leftover coal dust is stored for eventual burning. The workers were erecting scaffolding inside so other contractors could conduct repairs, said Timothy S. Trecek, the plaintiffs' attorney.

Trecek said We Energies and U.S. Fire Protection were responsible for cleaning out the coal dust before the workers were allowed inside. Because they didn't, airborne dust landed on a boiler light and sparked the explosion, he said.

When asked whether they could have used their own common sense to avoid a possibly dangerous situation, Trevino and Ross said workers expect to be warned any time they'll be exposed to hazardous circumstances. When no one warned them, they said, they assumed everything was fine.

Both men say their burns left their skin so sensitive that they can't tolerate extreme hot or cold temperatures anymore. Trevino can only feel deep pressure in his legs and doesn't know whether he'll regain the ability to feel a caress.

"It's kinda scary," Trevino said. "I just remember the vivid images of when I was burned, when I looked at myself in the ambulance. There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about what happened. And there's nothing that can remove those images, those vivid images from my mind."