Families of 3 Chicago men who died in Starved Rock explosion file suit

Lawyers said companies ‘failed to perform’ adequate post-blast inspection

The families of the three men killed in a May explosion near Starved Rock State Park filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the construction and blasting companies responsible for the explosive devices.

According to the lawsuit filed in Cook County by the Illinois law firm of Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, P.C., the construction and blasting companies failed to control explosives at all times and failed to perform an adequate post-blast inspection. The lawsuit said the construction and blasting companies failed to prevent an explosive device from falling into someone’s hands, even after discovering one of its undetonated explosive devices 11 days after the initial detonation.

On May 6, brothers Immer Rivera Tejada, 39, Rafael Rivera Tejada, 36, and their nephew Guillermo Rivera Tejada, 26, of Chicago, died in an explosion along the Illinois River near Route 178 in Utica.

According to the lawsuit, the men made a campfire to cook their fish on the south bank of the river. While creating a campfire, the men found what appeared to them to be a copper pipe and used it prop up a cast iron pan to cook their fish.

At about 7:07 p.m., one of the men video-called his son to show his catch of the day before placing the fish over the fire. A screenshot of this video call later posted by the family on social media revealed the copper pipe used to prop up the pan on the fire, was actually — unbeknownst to the three men — an explosive rod utilized by nearby construction and blasting companies working on the Route 178 bridge. At approximately 7:15 p.m., with enough exposure to the heat of the fire, the copper pipe heated up and exploded, killing each of the three men, the lawsuit said.

“To a person with no knowledge of explosive devices, the object the Rivera Tejadas found near their fishing site would have looked like a harmless copper pipe,” said the Plaintiffs’ Attorney Patrick A. Salvi, in a press release.

On May 6, soon after the explosion, authorities told Shaw Media preliminary observations were “for sure” the material ignited had not come from the nearby demolition remnants of the Route 178 bridge, but they also said they weren’t sure where the material had come from. Authorities, including the FBI, collected a sample that day of what was reported as “a type of black powder substance” for analysis.

An investigation by the Illinois State Police uncovered about 100 yards from where the men were allowed to find this explosive device, construction and blasting companies utilized these same explosive devices, known as linear shaped charges, during the March 18 planned detonation of the former Route 178 bridge.

The investigation further revealed 11 days following the March 18 detonation of the former bridge, these same construction and blasting companies found an explosive device that did not detonate as planned during the March 18 detonation. The construction and blasting companies did not report this finding to any regulatory body. Rather, a second explosive device remained unaccounted for until the three men found it on May 6.

Several items were collected from the scene of the May 6 explosion where the three men were killed, the law office said. Chemical testing performed by the FBI revealed soil from the explosion site, as well as clothing from one of the victims tested positive for the explosive compound used by the construction and blasting companies.

On the death certificates of the three men, the documents describe the injuries occurred standing near a heat source where an explosion occurred. The items of evidence collected tested positive for the high explosive, commonly known as RDX.

The suit said: “This explosive matches the commercial explosives utilized during the scheduled demolition of the steel truss portion of the old Route 178 bridge on 03/18/2021.”

The three men each leave behind a family, including seven minor children total, ranging in age from 3 years old to 15 years old, the law office said.

“While nothing will ease the heartbreak their wives and children are grappling with after this immense loss, we hope this lawsuit will prevent similar senseless tragedies from occurring in the future,” Salvi said.

Following the explosion, the La Salle County Coroner’s Office issued a press release saying it would be “a while before we find out,” Ploch said of the analysis of the material believed to have caused the explosion. The county issued no further releases. Authorities had ruled out criminal activity immediately.

D Construction, Gillan Construction and Orica USA were listed in the lawsuit. Messages were left with the companies late Thursday afternoon, but none had returned comment. The Illinois Department of Transportation, which contracted the companies but is not named in the suit, didn’t return immediate comment.

Derek Barichello

Derek Barichello

Derek is a Streator High and University of Illinois graduate. He worked at the Albany-Herald in Albany, Ga., and for Sauk Valley Media in Sterling, before returning to his hometown paper. He's now news editor for both the NewsTribune and The Times.