Five years later, explosion survivor still enraged at Didion Milling Inc. leadership

“It’s not right. I still say that today,” Rita Oosterhof, wife of explosion survivor.
Tuesday marks five years since an explosion at a Cambria milling plant that killed five people and left more than a dozen hurt.
Updated: May. 30, 2022 at 9:29 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Tuesday marks five years since an explosion at a Cambria milling plant that killed five people and left more than a dozen hurt. The explosion happened in the latest hours of May 31, 2017 at Didion Milling Inc.

Five years after surviving the explosion at Didion Milling Inc., Dallas Oosterhof is thankful to be alive but says the same company leaders who preached family values have abandoned him.

A family cookout on Dallas Oosterhof’s porch wouldn’t be complete without a toy grill and a side of his grandkids’ imagination. Dallas and his wife Rita have raised multiple generations in the Cambria house they’ve called home for the past 39 years. But for the past five years, things have been different, like the way Dallas picks up his grandson using one arm only.

Dallas gave a quarter century of his live working maintenance at Didion Milling, and now he’s left questioning why.

“Why did I give you 25 years and made you all that money by being a good employee?” wonders Dallas of the company.

He was on the job cleaning when the mill exploded in the late hours of May 31, 2017.

“Lights went out. It was so black. And then it was just like woosh. I’ve never seen anything so black and hot,” remembers Dallas.

Bricks and debris fell on top of Dallas, and he could feel blood running down his body. But he knew he had to escape for the ones who mean most.

“And then he said he thought of his grandkids,” says Rita.

“Yeah, my wife, my grand kids, I have to get out of here,” says Dallas.

“It’s not right. I still say that today,” Rita Oosterhof, wife of explosion survivor.

Navigating the unstable burning structure only by the dim light from a cell phone, Dallas couldn’t see much, but he could hear something, someone who needed rescuing too.

“My head hurt so bad. But the girls, I could hear them, the two lab girls,” recounts Dallas.

Determined Dallas made it to his coworkers and guided them over the debris, testing each step first to make sure it wouldn’t collapse under them, praying the roof above wouldn’t crumble.

“All you saw was just ambulances and fire trucks, just oh my God. Tt was just packed with that, you know? First responders, just not knowing,” says Rita.

It was that not knowing that had Rita living her own worst nightmare, standing outside the milling plant, watching it crumble, wondering if her husband would make it out alive.

“It was horrible. We all just sat down and cried together,” remembers Rita.

They were eventually reunited but forever changed.

“You see where all his hair is gone? The veins up here. This is actually what started it,” explains Dallas, pointing to his head.

Seizures, brain cancer and little feeling in the left side of his body, Dallas believes it’s all linked to the explosion. He says his injuries keep him from working.

“I’m depressed most of the time because I can’t do what I want to do. I fall down because this side don’t work like it should,” says Dallas.

“This doctor says he’s totally disabled,” says Rita.

Dallas qualifies for federal disability but says the checks aren’t enough to make up for the mounting medical debt. For the company, Didion, that he says preached protecting their own, Dallas says they cut him off financial support two years ago.

“They say we’re all about family,” says Rita. “I’m really mad. Look at Dallas, look at him. He can’t walk his arm hangs there,” says Rita. “Are they there for my husband? Have they called him? Do they know if he’s alive? No.”

NBC15 reached out to Didion for their thoughts on the anniversary and to ask why Dallas was cut off disability. They would not talk on camera. They say it’s because of ongoing litigation after a federal indictment. In a statement, they say

“The tragic accident five years ago deeply affected everyone at Didion. Each and every year, we stop to remember the people affected by the accident: the families, friends, and co-workers. We will never forget.

“Our thoughts and prayers have remained strong as we’ve recovered and rebuilt over the past five years. The most visible of the changes is our new corn milling operation in Cambria, supporting more than 500 area farmers and providing more than 200 jobs in the local community.

“While the accident and loss of life will never be forgotten, we move forward to best serve our team, the community, farmers and customers. We continue to commit to the highest standards of safety and quality in everything we do.”

Didion Milling Inc.

Didion also sent a statement in response to the federal indictment. They call the charges “unwarranted”.

What happened on May 31, five years ago was a horrible accident, not a criminal act. While we have cooperated fully with the investigation since day one, we now must respond with a strong, vigorous defense for the company and our team

Didion Milling, Inc.

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