Asarco workers reminisce, tearful as stacks come down

By Aileen B. Flores / El Paso Times

Video by Victor Calzada, Mark Lambie, Fernie Castillo, Rudy Gutierrez, Ruben R. Ramirez, Jesus Alcazar and Vanessa Monsisvais for the El Paso Times. Edited by Mark Lambie

Third-generation Asarco worker Dan Arellano saw part of his life pass him by when the two smokestacks collapsed Saturday morning.

“When the stacks went down, I saw my father. I remembered my grandfather, how I used to see him there. I remembered when I first started working there,” Arellano said and sobbed.

“I feel sad. My dad is the one who brought me into this labor. I made my fortune there, but I also got sick.”

Arellano, 58, worked for the smelting company for 24 years until 1999, when the plant closed. In 1997, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow that he is still battling.

He said a doctor determined that environmental factors caused his illness.

Arellano was part of a group of former Asarco workers who gathered at the intersection of Mesa and Castellano streets to see history crash to the ground in seconds. They stood together, some holding onto each other.

Right after the smokestacks toppled into a cloud of gray dust, the ex-workers released two birds into the air — a gray pigeon to symbolize the contamination and illness that Asarco left behind and a white dove to represent a new beginning.

Jesus M. Lerma, 75, grew up in a family of Asarco workers and joined the smelter in 1966, when the tallest smokestack — 828 feet — was built.

“I saw them when they rose. Now, I’m going to see them falling,” Lerma said minutes before the blast.

Though the plant might have harmed many people, the smokestacks represented the hard work of hundreds, Lerma said.

“I can not describe how I feel right now. I’m burning inside because all the sacrifice seems worthless,” said Lerma, who said he wanted the smokestacks preserved.

Lerma, his father and his six brothers worked at Asarco for many years, he said. He added that his father and a brother died of cancer.

Augie Gonzalez, who worked at the smelter for more than 30 years, wore his Asarco cap and jacket to the event.

He was more optimistic.

“It’s a new start. It’s better to clean everything up,” Gonzalez said. “It’s time to move on. This is the story of life.”

Gonzalez said he likes to think of Asarco as the place where he met a lot of friends.

“We were very united,” he said. “We were like a family.”

Aileen B. Flores may be reached at; 546-6362.