Metro-East News

August 27, 2014

Towns mourn Granite City explosion victims; ATF wants answers

Friends and colleagues said two men killed in an explosion Monday morning at Totall Metal Recycling were generous people who made a difference in the lives of others.

Rodolfo Romo, 46, of Fairmont City, and Tyler Muenstermann, 24, of Edwardsville, were killed when a mortar shell exploded at the Granite City plant that recycles shell casings on contract for the military.

Muenstermann graduated from McKendree University with a degree in athletic training in 2013, according to school leaders. He minored in sports psychology and studied to become a coach. He played offensive lineman for the Bearcats, his college team. Later, he continued to feed his passion for football by playing with the Illinois Justice semi-pro football team.

Romo was a village trustee in Fairmont City where he was a leader in a community made up largely of Hispanic immigrants. Although he worked six days a week, he was known for spending his free time supervising village children who wanted to play soccer.

James Niccum, head coach of the Justice, said Tuesday that last year was Muenstermann's first year on the semi-pro team, `` but he instantly fit in and became one of the guys. He was a great guy. A people guy who always had something funny to say."

Muenstermann told him he wanted to play a couple of years and then transition into coaching.

"That's really what he wanted to do, be a coach," Niccum said. "He loved the game."

Muenstermann's half brother, Ryan Cerentano, remembered his youngest sibling as an extremely smart young man who could accomplish anything in life.

"He was the best of all of us," Cerentano said, mentioning that he and Muenstermann were part of a family of six brothers.

Fairmont City Village President Alex Bregen said Romo worked hard at his day job. But he didn't let that get in the way with pitching in to make Fairmont City a better place to live.

Bregen said Fairmont City's population changed drastically during the past couple of decades. Mexican immigrants moved in, many of whom didn't speak English, changing the make-up of the community. At 71 percent, Fairmont City has the highest concentration of Hispanic residents in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

"He was very important in communicating with the public and bringing people together," Bregen said. "Rudy would interpret for me because I don't speak Spanish. He would help make sure that people got what they needed."

Away from the village hall, Romo volunteered his time when a group of kids wanted to play soccer but didn't have anyone to supervise them.

"An adult had to be there to set up the goal posts and nets and then take them back down," Bregen said. "He would sit there and watch them play until they were done. He had enough to do. But he always found time to help others."

Bregen said Romo's family was among the first Hispanics to immigrate to the Fairmont City area, and he helped those who came after him.

"He helped them fit in with American culture," Bregen said. "He helped people get educated. To re-establish their lives. The beauty of the man was that he was always willing to help. He'll be sorely missed. But he'll never be forgotten. He touched a lot of lives."

Bregen said Romo never complained about his job where he worked for 15 years or worried about the danger of working with ammunition.

Totall Metal Recycling spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said the investigation of how the accident happened continued through the day Tuesday. The plant in the 2700 block of Missouri Avenue remained closed. But it was expected to reopen Wednesday morning.

Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as local police, are trying to find out how an unexploded mortar arrived at the recycling plant.

Rausch said Tuesday that Totall Metal's contracts with the military call for the company to only handle spent shell casings.

"They don't handle live ammunition," Rausch said. "It is supposed to be inert."

Bregen said the fact that a live shell got onto the site was a freak accident that cost friends and family of the victims dearly.

"They get casings from the Army, Navy and Marines," Bregen said. "It's not supposed to be live ammo. But one (live mortar round), unfortunately, slipped through the cracks. One out of hundreds of thousands. And two people lost their lives because of it. It's a terrible accident."

Representatives from the ATF could not be reached for comment.

Granite City Police Chief Rich Miller said as of late Tuesday afternoon, the Illinois Secretary of State Police Bomb Squad and experts from Scott Air Force Base decided the site is safe for release to the owners.

Miller said the investigation into the cause of the explosion continues with the Granite City Police Department covering the death investigation and the Fairview Heights office of ATF handling the blast investigation.

"These dual investigations will take some continued work as well as any investigation by the Madison County Coroner's Office," Miller said.

Rausch said she did not have an update on the condition of a third person injured in the blast.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 618-239-2626.

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